State/Church Briefs (May 2002)

Priest helps run CUNY. The New York Senate in mid-April confirmed a priest and top church administrator as a City of University New York trustee, despite opposition to his stands against abortion, contraception and gay rights. Gov. George Pataki nominated Rev. John Bonnici, who directs the Archdiocese of New York’s Family Life/Respect Life Office.

Just what Afghans need–more religion. The U.S. Agency for International Development will spend $6.5 million in taxpayer funds to produce textbooks, including Islamic teachings and verses from the Koran, for Afghanistan’s schools. The USAID is giving a grant to the University of Nebraska at Omaha to provide textbooks and teacher-training kits to the schools. Oh, we got trouble. A pastor should be present at all city cabinet-level meetings, according to Rev. Carlton N. Pressley, the new senior religious adviser of Mayor Anthony A. Williams, Washington, D.C. Pressley and the rest of the mayor’s 65-member Interfaith Council were “installed” at an evening service at Metropolitan Baptist Church in late February, with a keynote by Rev. Jesse Jackson. Christians, teens, NRA.

The Christian Coalition, a group of teenagers with Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney of the antiabortion Christian Defense Coalition, and the National Rifle Association have all filed separate lawsuits challenging restrictions on campaign spending signed into law by President Bush this spring. One-upping Judge Moore? Rather than being given the right to marry, “gays and lesbians should be put in some type of mental institution,” wrote George County Justice Court Judge Connie Wilkerson, of Mississippi, in a published letter to the George County Times on March 28. He added: “You need to know, as I know, that God in heaven is not pleased with this and I am sounding the alarm.”

Ohio Department’s intelligent decision. After a hairy two-month push by creationists for inclusion of “intelligent design” in school textbooks, the Ohio Education Department issued a new draft in April with no changes in its position that students will be taught evolution. The State Board of Education–infiltrated by “intelligent design” supporters–has a Dec. 31 deadline to vote on the standards. Publicly funded religious diatribes. Florida state Rep. Randy Ball, R-Brevard County, sent a letter on House stationery to Florida newspapers in late March, which the St. Petersburg Times characterized as a “religious diatribe,” condemning “homosexuality as an abomination” and speaking of a “transcendent God.” Earlier in March, Ball sent out emails on his state computer invoking Jesus Christ and condemning gay adoption. Ball defended his use of state equipment and stationery: “This country runs and operates on the Judeo-Christian ethic that comes out of the bible.” One Nigerian mother saved. After an international outcry, a Nigerian mother of five sentenced to die by stoning for “adultery” after a rape, was freed on March 25–but another woman has received the same sentence under Islamic shariah rules.

Amina Lawal Kurami, charged with having a baby out of wedlock, is now appealing her death sentence. Ireland says “no” to Catholic Church. The Irish electorate in March narrowly rejected a constitutional amendment further restricting abortion, promoted by the Catholic Church in opposition to a Supreme Court judgment allowing abortions for suicidal women. Legislators walk out. Six lawmakers walked out during a March 5 morning prayer in the Colorado Senate by a Greeley pastor, who prayed to Jesus for lawmakers to accept Jesus and to reverse Roe vs. Wade. Charter profiteering. A California state panel said in March it found “mind-boggling” mismanagement and profiteering at 40 out of 87 public charter schools serving home-study students in California at a cost of $4,800 per pupil. More than 20 charters were unevaluated due to missing deadlines. A licensed atheist. The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles sent a February notice to Steven Miles of Gainesville, revoking his “ATHEIST” license plate as “obscene or objectionable.” After a public outcry, the Department reneged the order in March.

“Permeated with fraud.” The Federal Trade Commission has gone to court to shut down “Miss Cleo’s psychic hotline,” with Florida authorities joining the states of Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in filing separate suits. Florida code pushes religion. By a 9-4 vote on April 4, a negotiating team approved a compromise to a 1,800-page rewrite of Florida’s school code, pushed by Gov. Jeb Bush, which includes provisions allowing students to pray, preach and distribute religious literature. Many senators warned it comes with a million-dollar price tag in expected lawsuits. Florida voucher scandal. The St. Petersburg Times published an April expose about Florida’s $25-million-a-year voucher program, revealing that entrepreneur educators Art and Angel Rocker, who stand to collect $1.5 million in school voucher money this year, are quitting. The rightwing couple is leaving church leaders in charge of the church schools, dogged by complaints of teacher turnover, low pay, and even using food banks to feed students. Arizona charter revoked over religion. The Arizona Board of Education voted in late March to revoke the state’s first charter school, with a Glendale school accused of illegally promoting religion with its $1.1 million in tax support. Saving clergy tax breaks. The House of Representatives voted 408-0 in mid-April to approve H.R. 4156, clarifying the “parsonage” exemption that ministers, priests and rabbis have received for housing since 1921. The legislation, which moved into the Senate, codifies the IRS’ most restrictive practice of permitting clergy to deduct the “fair rental value” of their homes. Ashcroft’s Folly Justice Department staff complained in March that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has added singalongs of his own song to the routine at his daily prayer meetings. When asked by the Guardian why she objected, a department lawyer replied: “Have you heard the song? It really sucks.” Ashcroft launched into a lusty 4-minute rendition of “Let the Eagle Soar” following a recent speech to a seminary. Excerpts of the tape repeatedly have run on CBS’ David Letterman Show, but Ashcroft declined to reprise his “hit” during an April appearance there. The Guardian reported the AG even asked for Hispanic volunteers to translate his song into Spanish.

An excerpt: “Soar with healing in her wings, As the land beneath her sings. Only God, no other kings. Let the mighty eagle soar.” A clip of Ashcroft’s unusual performance, showcasing a Pentecostal-style vibrato, which must be seen to be believed, is at: (download RealPlayer at to play). “Should the Praying Mantis Be Our State Insect?” The following letter, written by a Foundation member, was published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press [March 28]: The Legislature has passed and the governor approved the image of a praying male figure as an official “state photograph.” Can we next expect a state religious watercolor or oil painting? Will we need a state weed or state cloud formation? Should the praying mantis be our state insect? In addition to making Minnesota appear silly, there is a serious aspect. The insinuation of religious themes in governmental affairs is an insult to the 14 percent of Americans who do not have a god belief. And it weakens the constitutional separation of church and state. Shame on the Legislature for passing this bill. –William Van Druten, Minnesota

Freedom From Religion Foundation