September 2000 AU Bulletin

Debate Over 'Charitable Choice' Stalls Poverty Relief Bill

A comprehensive anti-poverty bill that includes "charitable choice" aid for churches has stalled in the Senate after easy passage in the House.

The legislation, known as the "New Markets Initiative" (H.R. 4923), would provide billions of dollars for investment in poor communities nationwide. Enactment seemed likely after the White House and House Republicans struck a deal in May to allow federal funds for faith-based substance abuse treatment. The House approved the bill July 25 by a 394-27 vote.

However, the charitable choice provision became a sticking point in the Senate. During consideration of the measure, Sen. Charles Robb (D-Va.) suggested the language stood in the way of passage.

"Charitable choice is the big philosophical divide," Robb told the Associated Press. "On almost all the other pieces, we're in basic agreement [with the Republicans]."

The church aid component stalled the bill, at least temporarily. Supporters of the faith-based approach unsuccessfully attempted to attach the legislation as an amendment to a measure repealing the estate tax.

The proposal, however, is far from gone. Congressional observers expect the legislation, with the charitable choice provisions, to be reintroduced as a free-standing bill before the end of the year.

Congress Passes Land Use Bill To Protect Religion

Both houses of Congress have passed legislation designed to offer greater protection to religious institutions in disputes over zoning and land use.

The bill, known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), mandates that government must prove a "compelling interest" before restricting land use by religious institutions. The bill also gives additional flexibility to prison inmates to exercise their religion, so long as the practices do not undermine prison security.

RLUIPA follows several attempts by Congress to strengthen religious liberties. The broad-based Religious Freedom Restoration Act guaranteed an array of protections, but the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law in 1997.

The new scaled-back measure sailed quickly though the House and Senate, passing each chamber unanimously. President Bill Clinton has announced that he will sign the bill into law.

Fla. Lawsuit Challenges Catholic Rules At 'Public' Hospital

Americans United and three other advocacy organizations filed a federal lawsuit Aug. 16 to block a city hospital in Florida from following Roman Catholic religious directives.

The first-of-its-kind lawsuit against the city of St. Petersburg, Bayfront Medical Center and BayCare Health System charges that direct and indirect support of the hospital with taxpayer funds violates the separation of church and state because the facility operates under the tenets of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Since 1968, St. Petersburg has agreed to allow the medical facility to be run by Bayfront Medical Center. Problems began, however, in 1997 when Bayfront entered into an alliance with several other hospitals in the Tampa area, including religiously run hospitals.

To implement the new alliance, Bayfront agreed to operate the city's hospital according to the "Ethical and Religious Directives" of the Roman Catholic bishops. After the agreement, staff at the facility, including physicians, employees, volunteers, students and other contracted agents, were expected to sign a statement expressing a commitment to follow the ethical directives of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Under the directives, patients are restricted from receiving a variety of legal medical procedures, including abortion, sterilization, emergency contraception and artificial insemination. Patients' wishes identified in living wills also may be limited if they do not comport with Catholic doctrine.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the National Organization for Women Foundation and Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida. Pinellas County residents Jeanie Blue, Beth Lindenberg, Lee DeCesare and Irene Miller are also plaintiffs in the case, which was filed in federal district court.

Since 1995, there have been over 100 mergers of Catholic and non-Catholic hospitals. In many cases, reproductive services were lost or taken off site when the bishops' directives were applied.

Ga. Church Donations To Candidate Are Illegal, Says AU

A Georgia church violated federal tax law by donating $2,000 to a state legislative candidate, Americans United has charged.

AU has asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the incident, which centers on the First Assembly of God in Warner Robins. According to financial disclosure documents, the church gave Rep. Pamela Bohannon $1,000 in 1998 and $1,000 during her current reelection campaign.

Bohannon and officials at the church said they did not know the donations were unlawful. "We weren't trying to do anything illegal," the Rev. Glenn Grantham, the church's pastor, said. "We were simply supporting a candidate. I don't see anything wrong with that."

Bohannon, a member of the congregation, later returned the money. But Americans United contends that both the candidate and church leaders should have known the donations were illegal. Bohannon, for example, took a course in campaign financing after her election two years ago.

In a letter to the IRS, Americans United requested a prompt investigation. "[T]hese church contributions are a clear and flagrant violation of federal tax law," wrote Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn to the IRS. "I urge you to investigate the church's actions and take appropriate measures."

Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code prohibits nonprofit organizations, including churches, from intervening in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office.

S.C. Sheriff Told To Stop Giving Tax Aid To Churches

A South Carolina sheriff who had been awarding federal funds to a local church has been stripped of control over his budget after county council members learned of his spending activities.

Since July 1999, Dorchester County Sheriff Ray Nash has paid $29,938 to Crossroads Community Church, just over 10 percent of the $290,386 his office received from the U.S. Marshall's Service to defray the costs of housing federal prisoners. On July 10, the county council voted to 6 to 1 to take control over the sheriff's budget away from Nash.

"I pay my tithes every week, but I don't ask the taxpayers to do it," Councilman Randy Scott said after challenging Nash's church expenditure.

Nash told the council that the money paid for a chaplain program for prisoners.

Since assuming office in 1996, Nash has been a lightning rod for controversy. Shortly after getting elected, Nash announced "character guidelines" for his employees, which included a prohibition on unmarried employees living with someone of the opposite sex.

New Jersey Legislature Approves Islamic Law

New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman has signed legislation to enforce Islamic food preparation standards.

Whitman approved the law July 13 after the measure was passed unanimously by the New Jersey legislature. "Al Quran [the Koran] instructs Muslims to eat 'that which Allah hath lawful and good,'" Whitman said.

Observant Muslims only eat meat killed under Islamic slaughter guidelines. The New Jersey legislature considered the bill after Riza Dagli, a Muslim attorney in Morristown, N.J., brought public attention to instances of restaurants falsely claiming to sell halal food. The American Muslim Council estimates that 400,000 Muslims live in New Jersey.

Laws such as the New Jersey measure are of questionable legality. A similar statute in New York enforcing Jewish kosher rules has been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge.

In a July 28 ruling, U.S. District Judge Nina Gershon struck down the state's Division of Kosher Law Enforcement. The division, a part of the state's Agriculture Department, examines retailers to ensure that food labeled as kosher has been prepared in accordance with the religion's requirements.

"The entanglements involved here between religion and the state are not only excessive in themselves, but they have the unconstitutional effect of endorsing and advancing religion," Gershon said in Yarmeisch v. New York.

The suit was brought by two Long Island butchers who had been following the kosher guidelines of the Conservative branch of Judaism, but were fined repeatedly for not adhering to the stricter Orthodox rules endorsed by the state government.

Canada Mulls Church Aid In Sex Abuse Scandal

Hoping to avoid bankruptcy after thousands of costly lawsuits, Canada's three largest Christian denominations learned in June that the Canadian government is considering a plan to help the churches pay part of their enormous debts.

Before news of the bailout came, Canada's Catholic, United and Anglican churches faced serious financial difficulties after over 6,000 lawsuits were filed by Indians alleging sexual, physical and cultural abuse at federally funded, church-run residential schools.

In June, reports leaked that the Liberal cabinet is contemplating a plan to help the denominations pay a portion of their legal costs.

Canada funded 100 now-defunct residential schools, at which approximately 160,000 young Indians attended. Collectively, the lawsuits claim billions of dollars in damages.

"We really don't like the word 'bailout' because we're quite willing to meet our responsibilities," said United Church of Canada spokesman Brian Thorpe. "But if Ottawa is willing to help us with our costs, we'd be open to that."

Catholic Church Gains Influence In Mexico

After nearly a century on the political sidelines, Mexico's Roman Catholic Church was encouraged by the Vicente Fox's victory in July's presidential election.

Fox's political party, the National Action Party (PAN), has been the nation's pro-Catholic faction for some time. In fact, according to a report in The Washington Post, in some areas where PAN controls local government, officials have already banned strip clubs, disparaged homosexuals and made efforts to impose community curfews.

The Archdiocese of Mexico is also trying to exert greater influence in government. The Nuevo Criterio, a publication of the church, recently advised the divorced president-elect to adhere to church teachings on divorce and either reunite with his ex-wife or promise never to remarry. Concerns over Catholic influence grew when Guanajuato's state legislature, with a PAN majority, extended an abortion ban to include cases of rape and incest.