October 2001 People & Events

Americans Like Public Schools, Not Vouchers, New Poll Indicates

Most Americans give their local public schools high marks and oppose efforts to publicly fund religious and other private schools, a new poll indicates.

The 33rd Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll on the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools was released Aug. 22. The survey found that 68 percent of Americans give the public school their oldest child attends an A or a B. Twenty-two percent give the school a C, 6 percent a D, and three percent an F.

Ironically, grades for the public education system as a whole were much lower, indicating that many people may have been influenced by anti-public school propaganda or negative portrayals of schools in the media. Asked to rate American public schools as whole, 23 percent gave them an A or a B, 51 percent said C, 14 percent awarded a D and 5 percent said an F.

Other data show that the closer Americans are to public education, the more they like it. Asked to rate public schools in their own communities, 51 percent awarded an A or B, 30 percent a C, 8 percent a D and 5 percent an F. But of parents with children in public schools, 62 percent gave the schools an A or a B.

The poll found declining support for vouchers. In 1997 and '98, support for vouchers reached an all-time high of 44 percent. This year it slipped 10 points to 34 percent. Sixty-two percent said they oppose "allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense."

Asked to choose between improving public education or moving to vouchers, respondents went overwhelmingly with improving schools. Seventy-one percent favored that approach, and 27 percent opted for vouchers.

Another question asked those polled if they believe private schools that accept vouchers should be held accountable to the government in the same manner as public schools. Eighty-two percent said yes, while only 16 percent said no.

In other news about public schools:

 A new report questions claims that public schools are plagued with violence. The report, issued last month by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, notes that the juvenile homicide rate today is the lowest it has been since 1966 and shows a 68 percent drop from 1993 to 1999.

"Today's high school seniors are no more likely than their parents were to be assaulted, injured, threatened or robbed in high school," said Vincent Schiraldi, a criminologist with the group.

The organization cited poll data showing that 95 percent of students say they have never been threatened with a weapon at school. Close to 85 percent of students surveyed between 1976 and 1998 said they had never been injured, threatened with a weapon or been the victims of assault or theft at school.

For more information on the report, see the Center's website at www.cjcj.org

Bill Lifting IRS Ban On Church Politicking Gets Push In House

Angered by Americans United's efforts to stop houses of worship from intervening in partisan politics, a group of House members is stepping up its effort to secure passage of a bill that would change the Internal Revenue Code to permit such activity.

Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), the sponsor of the measure, appeared at a Washington, D.C., press conference Sept. 11 alongside leaders of several Religious Right organizations to announce a big push for the Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act (H.R. 2357), which he claims will restore "free speech" rights to churches.

The IRS currently prohibits all non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches, temples, synagogues and other religious associations, from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. Jones' bill, which has 55 cosponsors, would remove that prohibition for houses of worship.

Jones was joined at the event by Colby May, an attorney for TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, and Kenneth Connor, president of the Family Research Council. Also attending was House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas). The press conference, held at St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church on Capitol Hill, was cut short by word of terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington.

May accused Americans United of trying to intimidate churches. "It is the duty and responsibility of the church to speak out on moral issues of the day without the fear of incurring the wrath and heavy hand of the IRS," he said.

May and the ACLJ unsuccessfully defended the Church at Pierce Creek, a Binghamton, N.Y., congregation that lost its tax-exempt status after it ran newspaper ads attacking then-candidate Bill Clinton in 1992.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said May and the ACLJ have once again distorted the scope of AU's educational efforts. The organization, he said, has never told pastors that they may not speak out on moral or political issues but merely pointed out that the IRS does not allow churches to distribute material that favors certain candidates over others.

Last year, Americans United mailed letters to nearly 300,000 houses of worship nationwide, advising them not to distribute biased "voter guides" produced by the Christian Coalition. The guides are stacked to favor Republican candidates.

The congressional drive comes at a time when religious Americans are telling pollsters that they disapprove of church-based politicking. The poll, conducted by Gallup for The Interfaith Alliance, found that the overwhelming majority of those polled do not approve of churches or pastors endorsing candidates.

Asked if churches, synagogues and other houses or worship should endorse candidates, only 24 percent said yes, while 65 percent said no. The "no" responses were even higher when respondents were asked if clergy should endorse candidates. Twenty percent said yes, and 67 percent said no.

The poll also found that most clergy do not support church endorsement of candidates. Seventy-seven percent of clergy oppose the practice, while only 17 percent approve of it.

Most religious Americans also do not support distribution of "voter guides" in churches. The poll found 53 percent opposed to the practice, while 33 percent approved. Among clergy, the results were evenly split with 46 percent approving and 46 percent disapproving.

The poll, which was released Sept. 6, surveyed 303 members of the clergy and 1,202 "people of faith." For purposes of the poll, "people of faith" were defined as individuals who have attended a religious service within the past month and who agreed that religion was "very important" to them.

In other news about religion and politics:

 Texas pastor Rick Scarborough may be taking aim at state judges. Scarborough, head of the group Vision America, held a fund-raiser recently during which an associate, attorney Mark Lanier, said that bad judges should be removed from office.

The Houston Press reported that one judge Scarborough has in his sights was at the event. Patricia Hancock incurred Lanier's wrath when she overturned a $2.3 million judgment one of his clients had won. The paper reported that Lanier is recruiting a candidate to run against Hancock, a judge in the 113th District Court.

Scarborough denied having political intentions but told the Press, "Our position will always be moral in nature. That is not to say that we may not put out voter guides and let people see what people believe on issues, but we won't be endorsing any candidates."

Scarborough managed to elect a number of his associates to municipal office in Pearland, Texas, a few years ago. However, many of them were later caught up in scandals or were voted out of office.

 The Rev. Jerry Falwell is gearing up to help the Republicans maintain control of the House of Representatives. In a recent fund-raising letter, Falwell said he wants to raise $11.4 million "to keep pro-family control of Congress in 2002."

According to Falwell, failure to donate means the Republicans will lose the House, and President George W. Bush will serve only one term. If that happens, he wrote, "[W]e'll be right back where we were in 1992...this time very likely with Al Gore or Hillary Rodham Clinton in the White House and liberal majorities in both houses of Congress."

Religious Right Groups Demand Litmus Test For Supreme Court

A coalition of Religious Right organizations has put President George W. Bush on notice that they expect him to fill any Supreme Court vacancy with a nominee who shares their religious perspective on abortion.

The $2 million effort, called Shake the Nation, is spearheaded by Janet Folger, a staffer with the Rev. D. James Kennedy's Florida-based Center for Reclaiming America. Organizers plan to run anti-abortion television ads in Washington, D.C., and other cities and are urging supporters to mail baby rattles to members of Congress.

Religious Right groups were divided over Bush's recent decision to allow limited stem cell research, and some of those who grew angry over that action apparently see a Bush pledge to apply an anti-abortion litmus test to potential Supreme Court nominees as their due.

"I can tell you this," Folger told The New York Times. "There can never be another David Souter." Souter was appointed to the high court in 1991 by Bush's father, but he turned out to be a moderate, voting in favor of legal abortion and church-state separation.

Twenty-three organizations are taking part in the campaign, among them the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the Eagle Forum, Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship, the American Family Association, Concerned Women for America, the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, the Traditional Values Coalition, CatholicVote.org and the Campaign for Working Families, Gary Bauer's political action committee.

Some Religious Right activists are worried that Bush will refrain from nominating a strident anti-abortion justice in order to avoid a bruising battle with Senate Democrats. Observers say the campaign is a warning to Bush not to ignore the concerns of social conservatives.

Since the election, Bush has worked hard to shore up his ties to at least one faction of that coalition conservative Roman Catholics. Deal W. Hudson, editor of the right-wing magazine Crisis, said Bush advisor Karl Rove calls him frequently and called the level of access conservative Catholic leaders have to the White House "historic."

Dobson Magazine Attacks PTA As Liberal Front Group

Seven years ago, Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family launched an all-out assault against the Girl Scouts, blasting the famous cookie sellers for becoming proponents of "humanism and radical feminism."

In August Dobson struck again, assailing yet another American institution: The Parent-Teacher Association (PTA).

According to a lengthy hatchet job authored by Heather Koerner, the PTA seems to be "as American as apple pie" but is really a high-powered lobbying organization that promotes political correctness and a liberal agenda.

The article, which ran in FOF's Citizen magazine, was short on specifics but long on innuendo. It accused the PTA of promoting legal abortion and homosexual rights, although it conceded that the national office of the PTA has no formal position statement on either issue. Unable to smear that national PTA, Citizen instead played up actions some state and local affiliates have sponsored that FOF does not like.

The article makes is clear what the PTA's real sin is, according to FOF at least: failure to support voucher subsidies for religious schools. The PTA, as one of the largest pro-public education organizations in the country, officially opposes vouchers and other schemes to drain money away from public schools.

The Citizen piece also worked hard to portray the PTA as a tool of the Democratic Party, noting that Vice President Al Gore addressed the organization in 1998. It failed to point out that First Lady Laura Bush lauded the group in April. Appearing on CNN's "Larry King Live," Bush called the PTA "very important" and urged parents to work through the group to remain active in their children's schools.

The first lady was a PTA volunteer when the president was governor of Texas, and Bush himself has joined the local PTA in Crawford, Texas, near his ranch.

In other news about FOF:

 Dobson's rhetoric is getting increasingly shrill. His monthly letter to supporters in July asserts that the "traditional family" is on the verge of collapse. If that happens, Dobson asserts, "it will represent a virtual end of evangelism."

Writes Dobson, "Let me say one more time that if the family and the Judeo-Christian ethic collapse, the entire culture will descend into the same black hole that consumed Greece, Rome and the other great empires of the world. It's just a matter of time."

Continues Dobson, "The forces arrayed against the family are almost irresistible. Homosexual activists, radical feminists, abortion zealots and haters of Christianity have banded together to bring down the old order and substitute their own version of the Brave New World."

Dobson's alarmist rhetoric is undercut by recent data issued by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The Center found that the proportion of children living with two married parents is at 70 percent, a figure that has not changed since 1995. The number of children living with single mothers also dropped during the same period.

 Dobson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell joined together in an unusual alliance to sponsor "Super Conference 2001" in Lynchburg last month. The event, which was promoted by both FOF and Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church, was described as a conference "designed to equip pastors and church staff with biblical knowledge and practical tools to build godly families."

Speakers included Falwell, Falwell's son Jonathan, H.B. London Jr., executive vice president of FOF and four other FOF staffers.

Ex-GOP Official Named U.S. Ambassador To The Catholic Church

Former Republican National Committee Chairman R. James Nicholson was confirmed as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Aug. 1 and assumed the post later that month.

Nicholson is widely credited with orchestrating President George W. Bush's outreach to Catholics during the 2000 campaign, an effort that some analysts believe won Bush the White House. He succeeds Corinne "Lindy" Boggs, who held the post during the last three years of the administration of Bill Clinton.

Nicholson is the sixth Roman Catholic to hold the position since the office was created by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. In his statement nominating Nicholson, Bush called him "a proven leader who will bring a solid sense of commitment to his work with the Holy See on critical world issues."

In an Aug. 6 interview with Catholic News Service, Nicholson said he plans to use the post to promote democracy. "We [the United States and the Vatican] share a lot of common goals and a lot of common concerns," he said. Nicholson said these include "important things such as religious freedom, human rights, democracy, the need to democratize those countries that are not yet democracies."

N.C. Legislator Touts 'White Men And Christianity' In E-Mail

A North Carolina legislator who sponsored a bill promoting the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools came under fire in August after he sent a racist e-mail to his colleagues touting the achievements of "White men & Christianity."

Rep. Don Davis (R-Harnett County), forwarded the message to all of his colleagues in the legislature after receiving it from an internet site called "God's Order Affirmed in Love." The message read in part, "Two things made this country great: White men & Christianity. Every problem that has arrisen (sic) can be traced back to our departure from God's Law and the disenfranchisement of White men."

Another part of the message criticized Catholicism, accusing it of deviating from the Bible.

Faced with an outcry from other lawmakers, Davis at first refused to back down. "There's a lot of it that's truth, the way I see it," Davis said. "Who came to this country first -- the white man, didn't he? That's who made this country great."

Asked by a reporter if the message was racist, Davis snapped, "Listen, there's nothing racist about it. And don't give me that mess."

Republican Party leaders ordered Davis to apologize, and he did sort of. "I humbly want to apologize if the e-mail forwarded from my office on Monday night was offensive or disrespectful to any one in this General Assembly, state or nation," Davis wrote. He claimed he had forwarded the message only "to show the type of messages that come across the Internet" and said the message "was not intended to be indicative of my personal views."

Davis also said he hadn't read the entire message and forwarded it only because it appeared to support his position on posting the Ten Commandments in schools.

A few weeks later, however, Davis issued another racist e-mail. This one attacked Hispanics, asserting, "These Mexicans and all these other Hispanics have not done one thing for this country except suck us dry. Every day I see them in our grocery stores using food stamps, and guess who's paying the taxes for that." Davis said the message had been sent to him by someone in the city of Fuquay-Varina and that he was just passing it on.

"I apologize for nothing," he told the Associated Press. "The First Amendment...gives me just as much right to express myself as they have."

The Raleigh News and Observer called Davis a "follower of the flat earth faction" and noted that in 1998 he unsuccessfully tried to block North Carolina from receiving federal education funds.

The newspaper noted that in 1997, the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, using data compiled from fellow lawmakers, lobbyists and members of the press corps, rated Davis 118th out of 120 in terms of effectiveness. In 1999, he was dead last.

Missouri 'Faith-Based' Juvenile Center Accused Of Abusing Teens

Four men at a "faith-based" center for troubled juveniles in Missouri have been arrested and charged with felony child abuse after they allegedly hit a 16-year-old boy with a board then forced him to sit up all night in a metal chair.

One of the accused men is a staffer at Sharpe Farms and Heartland Community Center in Monticello, Mo. The other three are board members of the facility. Authorities in the area say the abuse occurred in February of 2000 but just now came to light when ex-staff members came forward with the information.

According to the reports, the teen was hit more than 30 times with a board on his back, buttocks and legs. The four accused of the abuse have been released on $20,000 bond.

The incident is not the first time allegations of abuse have rocked the Sharpe Farm. In June, five workers at the center were accused of forcing misbehaving children to stand in a manure pit, the Associated Press reported. Five people were arrested after that incident. (Three of them were re-arrested in the new incident.)

The facility was founded in 1995 by Charles N. Sharpe, a Kansas City insurance executive. It combines work therapy and Christian principles. The center includes a private Christian academy that serves more than 200 students in grades kindergarten through 12th.

Sharpe denied the allegations of abuse at the facility and has vowed to defend his staffers in court.

In Florida, meanwhile, legislators are moving to more tightly regulate church-run day care centers after a 2-year-old girl died at a Christian center in Daytona Beach.

The child, Zaniyah Hinson, died after being left in a locked van for nearly three hours. A teacher at the Abundant Life Academy of Learning told police she forgot to remove the child after returning to the center from a field trip.

State-licensed facilities are required to track children with a check-off list after field trips, but church-run day cares in Florida are essentially unregulated and are left to police themselves. Some lawmakers say more standards could prevent accidental deaths.

"Children's lives are just so important," said state Rep. Evelyn Lynn (R-Ormond Beach). "Anything that we can do to make sure things are safe for them is very important."

Officials at Florida's Department of Children and Families call regulation of church-run day cares long overdue. Department director Richard Barry told the Orlando Sentinel that the regulations would not try to stifle the religious character of the centers but would merely assure that health and safety standards were met.

Many religious groups in Florida oppose the move toward regulation. "We don't like them telling us we have to hire a homosexual," said Pat Mennenga, associate director of the Association of Christian Schools International. "We want to have biblical instruction and hire Christian teachers."

La. Legislators Create Pre-Kindergarten Voucher Plan

A new state program in Louisiana allows low-income parents in Orleans Parish to send their children to pre-kindergarten programs at religious institutions at state expense.

Catholic Charities of New Orleans is coordinating the program under contract with the state. The Catholic group has already identified 16 non-public institutions willing to participate, 14 of them Catholic.

The Louisiana legislature siphoned $3 million from the state's welfare budget to pay for the program. It allows 600 children identified as "at risk" to participate and had been promoted by the state's politically powerful Catholic bishops. Many observers believe it may be a precursor to a full-fledged voucher plan, something the church has long sought in Louisiana.

The principal of one Catholic school, St. Peter Claver, told New Orleans' Catholic newspaper that the money would enable him to hire more staff and expand its program. Don Boucree noted that the school subsidizes its pre-K program to keep the cost affordable for the poor and was happy that the state will now pick up that cost.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana regards the program as a backdoor voucher plan. Joe Cook, director of the state affiliate, said he will monitor the program closely and told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that a lawsuit may be filed.

Even as it gets more money from the state, the Catholic hierarchy in Louisiana continues to impose sectarian policies on staff at its schools. In June the Times-Picayune reported that all Catholic schoolteachers in the state were sent letters advising them that they must adhere to the church's "lifestyle policy" or face possible termination.

The policy bans living with a sex partner outside of marriage, fathering children or becoming pregnant out of wedlock and homosexual activity. Teachers also may not get married outside of the church, divorce, receive an abortion or view pornography.

"Catholic schools are part of a ministry," said J. Rene Coman, superintendent of the New Orleans Archdiocese's Catholic schools. "Those people who are participating in the ministry have an obligation to model Catholic values."

Bush Team Joins Vatican, Islamic Nations In Anti-Abortion Crusade

Prodded by Religious Right organizations and the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the Bush administration has joined the Vatican, Syria, Libya, Pakistan and the Sudan in an effort to block any mention of abortion or sex education in a new United Nations document on the rights of children and teenagers.

UN negotiators are trying to hammer out the document, titled "A World Fit for Children," but have been stymied by an ongoing disagreement over references to abortion. Most of the controversy centers on a few lines in one paragraph that refer to minors' rights to access "reproductive health services."

U.S. Religious Right groups, led by Focus on the Family (FOF), insist that the phrase is code language for abortion. The United States has joined the Vatican and several hard-line fundamentalist Muslim nations in demanding that the phrase be modified.

"I simply hope the U.S. delegation and the Holy See and other countries will hold strong," said Thomas Jacobson, FOF's observer at the negotiations. "Even Syria and Libya, countries we ordinarily don't have much to do with, are agreeing with us in not including language that has to do with abortion."

Negotiators with other nations say the stance taken by the United States is unrealistic. "How can we talk about a plan of action for children that doesn't deal with sex education and information?" asked Brazilian negotiator Fernando Coimbra. "To face the challenges posed by HIV/AIDS and early pregnancy, we have to keep our children informed. To wait until they're over 18 is too late."

A former U.S. senior official, speaking anonymously, also criticized the stance. "The U.S. position on health issues and international instruments has been so combative and isolationist we've ended up alienating traditional friends, especially Europeans," he told the Los Angeles Times. "They're taking a much harder stance than they otherwise would have, and in a sense we've brought this on ourselves."

The United States also opposes sections of the document that call for raising the minimum age for soldiers to 18. The language is intended to stop the use of children as combatants in warfare, but U.S. negotiators argue that it could prevent military recruiting efforts aimed at 17-year-olds.