September 1999 AU Bulletin

Religious Liberty Bill Passes
House Of Representatives

The Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA) passed the U.S. House of Representatives July 15, enjoying broad bipartisan support in a 306-118 victory.

Sponsored by Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.), RLPA is Congress' attempt to reinstate the religious liberty safeguards jeopardized by a 1990 Supreme Court decision. The legislation has the support of a broad coalition of groups from across the ideological spectrum, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

RLPA requires the government to show a "compelling interest," such as health or safety, before infringing on free exercise. The legislation also says that the government must act in the "least restrictive" manner when dealing with limiting religious exercise.

Despite its broad backing, the bill still sparked significant controversy. Some groups contend that RLPA may elevate religious freedom at the expense of civil rights protections.

Responding to those concerns, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) proposed an amendment that would have addressed the civil rights issue. Nadler's measure, however, was defeated 234-190.

The legislation now moves to the Senate, where efforts to alter the bill, and perhaps extend more protections for civil rights, will continue.

Ten Commandments, Other Riders
Head For Conference

The fate of a Ten Commandments proposal and other controversial church-state riders added to a juvenile justice bill in June by the House of Representatives is now in the hands of a House-Senate conference committee.

Amendments to the House version of the bill, including a charitable choice provision and a measure to allow the Ten Commandments to be posted in schools, are unconstitutional, according to many legal experts. The Senate version of the legislation differs from the House plan, so a conference committee will work out a compromise between the two.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is serving as chairman of the conference committee. According to the Aug. 6 Washington Times, Hatch said the House's cultural provisions will probably end up in the compromise version.

This statement comes after nine Senate Republicans, including Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.) wrote to Hatch asking that the Senate accept the House's Ten Commandments provision.

"This won't solve all of our problems," the senators observed. However, they said posting of the Commandments in schools would be "reinforcement that it is not OK to kill people or lie or steal."

If the controversial additions to the juvenile justice bill are kept, a White House veto becomes a stronger possibility. During the congressional recess that lasts until Labor Day, wrangling over the bill's specifics will continue.

Kansas School Board Passes Anti-Evolution Measure

The Kansas Board of Education has adopted new science standards that make no reference to evolution, handing creationists their most significant victory in recent memory.

The board voted 6-4 to adopt the new standards Aug. 11. In doing so, they ignored pleas from the presidents and chancellors of Kansas' six public universities, who in a letter to the board asserted that dropping evolution would "set Kansas back a century and give hard-to-find science teachers no choice but to pursue other career fields or assignments outside of Kansas."

The move was spurred in part by the Creation Science Association for Mid-America, a fundamentalist Christian ministry that crusades against evolution. The group contends evolution conflicts with the account of origins found in the Book of Genesis.

Kansas Gov. Bill Graves (R) opposed the board's action, insisting it would hurt educational quality in the state. After the vote, Graves said he would support a move to abolish the board.

Americans United Legal Director Steve Green warned the board of potential legal difficulties associated with curricula that reflects religious dogma. "If the new standards are found to favor a creationist perspective," advised Green in a letter, "we would not hesitate to bring a legal challenge."

Meanwhile, the Nebraska Board of Education has approved a new policy mandating that evolution be taught as a "theory" and not as a fact. However, the board, by a 5-3 vote, rejected a proposal to allow school districts to present a variety of theories about the origin of life. Supporters of the failed proposal saw it as a means of including creationist concepts in science classes.

Indiana Church Loses Tax Battle In Federal Court

A church that has refused to withhold Social Security and federal income tax for church employees has lost a federal court case and now owes the government $5.3 million.

The Indianapolis Baptist Temple has tried a variety of methods to avoid taxes, from changing its name to arguing it is protected under the First Amendment. U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker found the church's arguments unpersuasive and issued a ruling July 7 that allows the federal government to foreclose on the church's property.

According to The Indianapolis Star, Barker seemed particularly troubled by the congregation's evasive tactics.

"Defendant apparently believes it can evade federal tax law by metamorphosing into various different forms of entity," Barker said in her decision. "On this, it is sadly mistaken.... (S)uch tactics do not save Defendant from the harsh ramifications it now faces as a result of years of tax evasion."

The justice department filed suit after the church failed to pay taxes for employees from 1987 to 1992. The government has been trying to collect the money owed since 1994.

Missouri Town Must Drop Christian Fish Logo

A federal court has ruled that the city of Republic, Mo., must remove a Christian fish symbol, known as an ichthus, from the city seal because it violates church-state separation.

U.S. Federal Court Judge Russell G. Clark ruled July 9 that the fish, which is also featured on the city's flags, street signs, stationary and vehicles, must be removed. The matter was so clear, Clark ruled in a summary judgment before a trial.

"The portrayal of the fish impermissibly excludes other religious beliefs or non-beliefs and -- intended or not -- depicts Christianity as the religion recognized and endorsed by the residents of Republic," Clark's ruling said. "The Republic city seal pervasively invades the daily lives of non-Christians and sends a message that they are outsiders. The Constitution forbids such a result."

The Webb v. City of Republic case was brought in early 1998 by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Jean Webb, a Wiccan and former resident of Republic, who was offended by the religious nature of the local government's seal.

Residents of the town raised $35,000 to finance the legal battle, and were represented in the case by the National Legal Foundation, a Religious Right group located in Virginia Beach, Va.

However, the case will go no further. After a 4-4 deadlock by the Board of Aldermen on whether to appeal, Mayor Doug Boatright broke the tie and voted July 19 to end the controversy. Though Boatright's decision was unpopular with many in the town of nearly 9,000, local officials were concerned about exorbitant legal costs in a battle they are likely to lose.

AU Opposes N.C. Ten Commandments Display

Americans United has urged a federal appeals court to bar display of the Ten Commandments in a North Carolina courtroom.

The case, Suhre v. Haywood County, centers around Richard Suhre, an Asheville, N.C., atheist who brought suit against the Commandments display in 1994. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed July 19, Americans United argued that the display is unconstitutional.

"This case involves unconstitutional action of the first order: governmental endorsement of the tenets of a particular religion," the AU brief argues. "Such action strikes at the heart of the limitations imposed by the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution and, for this reason, the district court's decision should be reversed."

Joining AU in the brief were the American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

New Jersey Gov. Whitman Aids Catholic School

New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R) has announced a $250,000 low-interest loan to bail out a Roman Catholic school that was set to close due to financial difficulties.

St. Mary Hall-Doane Academy announced July 27 it was unable to pay its bills and would not open for the 1999-2000 school year after 162 years of operation. Three days later, Whitman rushed in with the funds the school needed to open for another year.

The governor received assistance in the project from State Senator Diane Allen (R-Burlington) and Burlington County Freeholder Philip Haines, who offered the loan from funds originally earmarked for "state economic development."

China Cracks Down On Spiritual Movement

The Chinese government has escalated its crackdown on the Falun Gong religious movement, including arrests of adherents, television propaganda against the group and public burnings of the sect's materials.

This round of suppression was instigated after 10,000 Falun Gong followers, who preach a combination of exercise and meditation, participated in a peaceful sit-in protest April 25 at the Communist Party's leadership compound.

However, the government is dealing with the religious group much differently than the democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989, sensitive to the fact that millions of Falun Gong adherents are also members of the Communist Party.

Despite the relatively lenient punishment for Chinese followers, The New York Times also reported that government officials have labeled Falun Gong "evil," its adherents "misguided" and accused the group's leaders of "spreading superstitious and fallacious ideas to deceive the public, causing deaths of practitioners." Each night, government-run television airs interviews with former group members who have abandoned the movement.

Specific figures on the size of the Falun Gong movement are unavailable, though the government has reported the sect has anywhere from 2.1 million to 10 million followers, with about one-third of the followers being members of the Communist Party.