Chilling Bill" Passes House in September
The U.S. House, by a 244-173 partyline vote, passed a bill on Sept. 26 to bar judges from awarding legal fees to plaintiffs who win lawsuits against the government for violating the Constitution's ban on government establishment of religion.
The Public Expressions of Religion Protection Act was prompted after the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Americans United were awarded $2 million for winning the Dover "intelligent design" case. The award was later reduced to $1 million.
"In God's Name" Expose Runs
The New York Times ran a 4-part series, "In God's Name: Favors for the Faithful" by reporter Diana B. Henriques (Oct. 8-11, 2006). Henriques detailed how "Religion trumps regulations as legal exemptions grow," and reported on many rules, zoning, restrictions, requirements that don't apply to "faith groups."
Current Congressional budget records reveal that the exemption of minister housing costs the government as much as $500 million in tax revenues every year. That national tax burden shifts to taxpayers.
In a typical state, Colorado, religious real estate valued at more than $1.1 billion was exempted from local property taxes in 2005. Nationally, tax-exempt financing for religious organizations totaled at least $20 billion from 1995 to 2005.
"In recent years," wrote Henriques, "many politicians and commentators have cited what they consider a nationwide 'war on religion' that exposes religious organizations to hostility and discrimination. But such organizations--from mainline Presbyterian and Methodist churches to mosques to synagogues to Hindu temples--enjoy an abundance of exemptions from regulations and taxes. And the number is multiplying rapidly.
"Some of the exemptions have existed for much of the nation's history . . but many have been granted in just the last 15 years, sometimes added to legislation anonymously and with little attention, much as are the widely criticized 'earmarks' benefiting other special interests.
"An analysis by The New York Times of laws passed since 1989 shows that more than 200 special arrangements, protections or exemptions for religious groups or their adherents were tucked into Congressional legislation, covering topics ranging from pensions to immigration to land use."
In Alabama, daycare centers run by churches are exempted from state licensing requirements, even though nearly a dozen children died in licensed and unlicensed daycare centers there in a two-year period. The series details controversial tax breaks for ritzy religious nursing homes and properties. In 2002, the Washington state courts granted a tax exemption for the site of a religious broadcaster's transmission tower. This January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed a 1959 decision that denied tax exemptions to parking lots that serve churches once a week. The Florida legislature ended a five-year attempt by local authorities to collect $300,000 a year in property taxes from Holy Land Experience, an elaborate bible theme park in Orlando with a pricey door charge, gift shops and restaurants.
Henriques quotes Prof. John Witte Jr., of Emory University Law School saying "separation of church and state is no longer the law of the land." The reporter attributes this to the growing political influence of religious groups, conservative changes on courts, and deference to religion by politicians of all stripes.
Henriques lists several bills before Congress to grant favoritism to religion: HR 235, to exempt churches and religious groups from the IRS rule against partisan politicking; HR 27, to let religious employees discriminate in hiring, including job training paid for by the feds; HR 2679, which passed the House in September, to prohibit courts from awarding attorneys' fees and costs to winning Establishment Clause plaintiffs; HR 4364, The Public Prayer Protection Act, to protect the right of government officials "to express their religious beliefs through public prayer" by barring judicial oversight; HR 1445 and S 677, Workplace Religious Freedom Act, to amend the Civil Rights Act on accommodating religious observances of employees; and HR 1054, to transform Pres. Bush's executive orders creating a "faith-based initiative" into law.
Kuo Exposes Faith-Based Office
David Kuo, former second-in-command in Pres. Bush's Office on Faith-Based Initiatives, has written a new book, Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction, detailing how the office is "used almost exclusively to win political points with both evangelical Christians and traditionally Democratic minorities."
Kuo recounts a day shortly after the 2001 inauguration when Karl Rove summoned a bewildered aide into his office just before Bush announced his scheme, demanding: "Just get me a f--ing faith-based thing. Got it?"
Kuo said Rove referred to evangelical leaders as "the nuts." Rove deputy Ken Mehlman "knowingly participated in a scheme to use the office, and taxpayer funds, to mount ostensibly 'nonpartisan' events that were, in reality, designed with the intent of mobilizing religious voters in 20 targeted races," writes Kuo.
"Making politically active Christians personally happy meant having to worry far less about the Christian political agenda," he added.
Kuo said the faith-based initiatives is a political operation that discriminated overtly against nonChristian charities. The Office has become a successful taxpayer-funded arm of the Republican campaign by holding "roundtable events" for threatened Republican encumbents "using the aura of our White House power." Kuo says 19 of the 20 endangered incumbents benefiting from the scheme won races, including Saxby Chambliss in Georgia, who had a landslide victory over decorated war hero Max Cleland. Kuo said Bush's 2004 victory was at least partially tied to the conferences they launched in Ohio.
By the time he left, Kuo said the White House was "mocking the millions of faithful Christians who had put their trust and hope in the President and his administration."
Oklahoma Schools End Prayer
An Oklahoma school district agreed in late September to halt prayers at administrative meetings, and to stop purchasing textbooks and teaching materials from a religious publishing company. The high school principal, who is also a Baptist minister, had led invocations at faculty and staff meetings.
The agreement settles a federal lawsuit filed by Frank Makinson, then-director of federal programs for Pocola Public Schools. Makinson, who referred to the incidents as "Christian prayer sessions," retired in July.
Alabama Launches "God Bless" Tag
Motorists in Alabama may now choose a standard "Stars Fell on Alabama" license plate or the new "God Bless America" tag. Gov. Bob Riley used the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to unveil the "God Bless America" tag, designed by the state Revenue Department.
He erroneously claimed the statement "has guided this country for over 200 years."
Courts Rule on Prayer
U.S. District Court Judge James R. Spencer ruled in August against a Virginia official who prayed in Jesus' name when it was his turn to give city council invocations. Spencer ruled that "legislative prayers" are government speech and therefore cannot advance Christianity or any other specific religion.
In September, U.S. District Judge Richard W. Story ruled that clergy who say an invocation at commissioner meetings in Cobb Co., Ga., may "identify the deity to whom they direct their prayer." But Story also ruled it was clear certain faiths "were categorically excluded from the list."
Louisiana Prayer Suit Settled
A lawsuit filed on behalf of a former student teacher penalized for reporting school prayer was settled in early October by the Tangipahoa Parish School Board and Southeastern Louisiana University. Plaintiff Cynthia Thompson gets attorney's fees, will be able to reenroll in the class she needs to graduate, and will have her failing grade in student teaching changed to a "withdrawal."
The state ACLU sued in May 2005 on her behalf, alleging retaliation against her when she reported that her mentor teacher led students in prayer, conducted a before-class bible club and called on a student to lead a lunchtime prayer. The school board acknowledged the violations and said they have been halted.
Church Fights IRS Inquiry
A liberal California church under investigation by the IRS in late September denied the agency's request for documents. If the IRS does not drop the investigation, a court showdown could occur--with possible intervention by Congress, under pressure by evangelical lobbies to amend rules against church politicking.
The IRS went after an antiwar sermon delivered by the former rector of All Saints Episcopal Church, in Pasadena, on the Sunday before the 2004 election. The sermon imagined Jesus chiding both Bush and Democratic opponent John Kerry on topics, singling out Bush for his doctrine of preemptive war: "When you go to the voting booth on Tuesday, take with you all that you know about Jesus the peacemaker," the rector advised.
Air Force Lawsuit Tossed
A federal judge on Oct. 27 threw out a lawsuit against unlawful promotion of evangelical Christianity at the U.S. Air Force in Colorado Springs.
Mikey Weinstein vowed to appeal the decision by U.S. District Judge James A. Parker of Albuquerque: "Our fight is far from over."
Weinstein was given a "Champion of the First Amendment" award at the recent FFRF convention in October.
Parker said the plaintiffs, a group of Academy graduates, could not claim their First Amendment rights were violated since they no longer attend the Academy, and failed to show specific harm.
The Academy was the subject of a major investigation involving institutional evangelicalism, but new guidelines adopted to prevent abuses were dropped in February.
Church Politicking Probed
The IRS was asked by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics to investigate the role of two churches in the reelection campaign of Kansas attorney general Phill Kline. Kline directed members of his campaign staff to recruit churches to distribute campaign literature and serve as venues for events. Two Topeka churches, the Light of the World Christian Center and the Wanamaker Woods Church of the Nazarene, participated in 'lit drops.' Kline preached at one of the churches on July 9.
The group also filed a complaint in October against the Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park, Minn., after its pastor openly endorsed a Congressional candidate:
"We can't publicly endorse as a church, and would not for any candidate," said Rev. Mac Hammond while introducing Michele Bachmann, a Republican state senator running for a seat in the U.S. House. "But I can tell you personally that I'm going to vote for Michele Bachmann."
Bachmann told the church she had been "called by God" to run for the House seat. Hammond does not live in Bachmann's district. It is not known if the church invited her opponent; if it did not, that also crosses the line.
Red Mass Held
Once again, a mass to mark the start of the Supreme Court's judicial calendar was held on Oct. 1 in Washington, D.C., with Roman Catholic Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl officiating.
In attendance were four of the court's five Catholic justices: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. Samuel A. Alito Jr. did not attend. Catholics now comprise a majority on the 9-member court, which will be considering such issues as late-term abortion.
"Morality and ethical considerations cannot be divorced from their religious antecedents," said Wuerl.
Also in attendance was Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
"The two spheres, church and state, while distinct, are always interrelated," intoned Wuerl. "Politics, law, faith are mingled because believers are also citizens. Church and state are home for the same people."
"Jesus Camp" Grabs News
"Jesus Camp," a new documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, follows children sent to Devil's Lake, N.D., to a "Kids on Fire" summer camp run by Pastor Becky Fischer, where they become "warriors" for Christ.
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Scouts Lose Berkeley Case
Berkeley won an eight-year legal battle in October, when the U.S. Supreme court refused an appeal by the losing Boy Scouts of America over the city's revocation of a free marina berth to Sea Scouts.
The city argued it should not be forced to subsidize a private group that discriminates against gays and atheists and would not honor city antidiscrimination laws. The Scouts had used city-owned berths free of charge for decades. Since 1998, they have had to pay about $6,000 per year.