Apologist D’Souza pleads not guilty
Dinesh D’Souza, 52, Christian apologist and conservative author, was released Jan. 24 on $500,000 bond after pleading not guilty at his arraignment in Manhattan to federal counts of making more than $10,000 of contributions in the names of others and causing false statements. According to an indictment filed by Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, D’Souza allegedly made contributions in other people’s names to a U.S. Senate candidate in 2012. The indictment didn’t name the candidate, but sources said it was Republican U.S. Senate candidate Wendy Long, who lost to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
D’Souza takes the Christian position in frequent debates with freethinkers and has debated FFRF Co-President Dan Barker eight times. D’Souza was forced to resign in 2012 as president of King’s College, an evangelical Christian school in Manhattan, over reports he was having an affair with Denise Odie Joseph, 29, while still married to his wife of 20 years. He was raised Catholic but now calls himself a nondenominational Christian.
States’ abortion barriers mushroom
The Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization which works to advance reproductive health and abortion rights, reported Jan. 2 that more abortion restrictions were enacted in 2011–13 than in the entire previous decade.
In 2013, 39 states enacted 141 provisions related to reproductive health and rights. Half of them, 70 in 22 states, sought to restrict access to abortion services.
A few states adopted measures to expand access. Most notably, California enacted the first new state law in seven years to expand access to abortion. Five states expanded access to comprehensive sex education and to emergency contraception for sexual assault victims.
Pakistan blasphemy nets death sentence
A court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, sentenced a British man, Muhammad Asghar, 70, to death Jan. 23 for blasphemy. Asghar was arrested in 2010 after he wrote letters to various people, including the police, claiming he is a prophet. According to BBC News, Asghar is a British Pakistani from Edinburgh who came back to Pakistan to look after his family’s property. The complaint against him was filed by a tenant who had been served with an eviction notice by Asghar.
Before returning to Pakistan, Asghar had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, but a medical panel appointed by the court in Pakistan rejected the claim of mental illness.
According to Religion Clause, the death sentence is unlikely to be carried out since Pakistan has had a de facto moratorium on the death penalty since 2008. Asghar’s lawyer said the conviction will be appealed, and the British Foreign Office plans to raise its concerns with the Pakistani government.
Marriage equality makes more gains
In the seven months since the 2013 Supreme Court landmark decision striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as between a man and a woman, the number of states allowing gay marriage has jumped from 12 to 17 (plus the District of Columbia). In Utah and Oklahoma, the issue is in limbo pending appeals, The Associated Press reported Jan. 16.
John Williamson, a former state Senate president who wrote the ballot measure that an Oklahoma judge overturned, said that as a Christian he will never accept gay marriage. “But in states that by a vote of the people have approved that, I say ‘OK, they got what they want. You have a majority of the people there, and if the minority doesn’t like it, they can move to Oklahoma.’ But now what can we do?”
An AP poll in October showed about a third of Americans opposing gay marriage, down from 45% in 2011. Twenty-seven states still have constitutional prohibitions and four have state laws against same-sex marriage.
Judge censured for courthouse religion
Bronx County Judge Mary Brigantti-Hughes was censured by the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, ABA Journal reported. According to a Dec. 17 statement of facts cited by the commission, Brigantti-Hughes:
• Directed staffers to type or copy religious material for her personal use.
• Asked a court attorney to accompany her to Home Depot to buy and pot plants for a church function.
• Asked court staff to join her in prayer in court chambers, and asked staffers to attend religious events after regular business hours.
Brigantti-Hughes, 54, had obtained permission to hold lunch-hour bible study and prayer group at the courthouse, but the requests for staff prayers were made at other times during regular business hours, the determination said.
She also had staff do personal favors for her that were not related to religion. The alleged conduct took place between 2006 and 2011.
Nativity scenes take military hits
Officials at Shaw Air Force Base near Sumter, S.C., ordered removal of a nativity scene that was set up by a small lake on the base, the Air Force Times reported in December.
Spokeswoman Lt. Keavy Rake said the Military Religious Freedom Foundation lodged a complaint about the display. Reke said base officials want a holiday display that reflects more than a single group’s beliefs. Volunteers from the base chapel set up the nativity scene.
The commander of the Guantanamo Bay Navy Base in Cuba ordered two nativity scenes out of cafeterias to the base chapel, reported the Miami Herald.
“The spirit of the Navy’s policy on this is, if it’s religious, it goes to the chapel,” said base commander Capt. J.R. Nettleton. “It’s more appropriate there.”
Eighteen service members had complained to MRFF. Guantanamo has about 6,000 residents, a third of them civilian contract workers from Jamaica and the Philippines.
Vouchers subject of North Carolina suits
Public school advocates sued the state of North Carolina on Dec. 11 to block a new law that would let taxpayer money be used by low-income students wishing to attend private or religious schools, reported The Associated Press.
The North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina Justice Center filed the lawsuit in Wake County Superior Court on behalf of 25 parents, teachers and others. They contend the new law violates the state constitution, which requires that the school funding be “used exclusively for establishing and maintaining a uniform system of free public schools.”
The law would allow annual grants of $4,200 per students. About 2,400 students could qualify for grants in the first year, with $10 million budgeted. Legislators said they hope to expand the program.
Thirteen states had tuition tax credit programs as of this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Okla. commandments hit with suits
American Atheists filed a federal lawsuit Jan. 13 against members of the Oklahoma State Capitol Preservation Commission for allowing placement of a 2,000-pound Ten Commandments monument at the north entrance to the Capitol. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a similar lawsuit in state court.
The commission put a moratorium on proposed displays on Dec. 19 after getting ones from the New York-based Satanic Temple, a Hindu leader in Nevada, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The satanists’ monument features a 7-foot-tall Baphomet, a goat-headed creature sometimes used as a stand-in for Satan. The demon’s lap, flanked by a smiling child on each side, would double as a seat for visitors.
Tulsa atheist William Poire told KRMG-TV: “I don’t want to see a Hindu monument or a satanist monument any more than I want to see any other endorsement or any other religion.”
Church properties escape Fla. taxes
A 12,000-square-foot home in Coral Springs, Fla., that has a pool, guest house and several garages was recently assessed at at $1.9 million. The owner, the Church of the Bible Understanding, pays no property taxes, WPLG reported Dec. 13.
It’s also the primary residence of Stewart Trail, a former vacuum salesman and carpet cleaner who founded the church. The previous owner, a former Miami Dolphins football player, paid $50,000 a year.
A $2 million, 5,000-square-foot house owned by the Seafarer’s Church of the Creator is also tax-exempt. “It’s a house hosting religious services,” said Broward County property appraiser Lori Parrish.
“Federal law governs religious facilities,” said Parrish. “The law is the law, and we follow the law.”