7th Circuit: Remove Decalog
The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Dec. 13 that a Ten Commandments monument on the lawn of the municipal building in Elkhart, Ind., is unconstitutional.
The appeals court overturned a 1999 district court ruling dismissing the challenge.
In its 2-1 ruling, the court said that constitutional principles "simply prevent government at any level from intruding into the religious life of our people by sponsoring or endorsing a particular perspective on religious matters."
Citizens are required to "come into direct and unwelcome contact with the Ten Commandments to participate fully as citizens of Elkhart," the court ruled, nor could the 6-foot tablet be stripped of its "sacred significance."
Plaintiffs are Elkhart residents William A. Books and Michael Suetkamp.
Kentucky Officials Show Contempt
Officials in McCreary and Pulaski counties rehanged the Ten Commandments in their courthouses in defiance of a federal judge's order. The ACLU filed a motion on Dec. 7 asking that the officials be held in contempt. The officials filed a legal memo in late December insisting the commandments are not "religious" in their overall display of "historical" documents.
Pastors Oppose Courthouse Nativity
Thirty-two pastors signed a letter to county officials in Lafayette, Ind., opposing a Nativity display on the Tippecanoe County Courthouse lawn in December.
The county banned such displays in 1999 after allowing a creche on the courthouse lawn every Christmas for nearly 30 years. After a group of two dozen residents petitioned commissioners to change the policy, the pastors noted, "Their agenda is not reflective of the mainstream Christian community."
Christmas Lawsuit on Appeal
A federal appeals judge told litigant Richard Ganulin of Cincinnati in December that he must show how the celebration of Christmas as a national legal holiday harms nonbelievers.
Judge Boyce Martin Jr. said philosophical or religious objections are not enough to support a lawsuit asking to scrap the designation of Christmas as an official holiday. Martin is one of three judges hearing the case at the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"As a matter of law, it cuts me out, it excludes me, I'm an outsider, I'm an observer. It's a sectarian celebration," Ganulin said.
Ganulin, who sued the federal government in 1998 (and was a speaker at the 1998 FFRF convention), said he is not attacking Christmas, only the unconstitutionality of the federal law making it a national holiday.
A federal judge in December 1999 threw out Ganulin's lawsuit, saying he lacked standing and failed to show how the legal holiday harmed him.
Mojave Cross Removed
The National Park Service agreed in late October to remove a Christian cross from the Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County, Calif.
The site of the cross was routinely used as a gathering for Easter and other memorial services, but was not open as a venue for other forms of religious expression, according to the ACLU of Southern California. The complaint was brought by a former Park Service employee.
"Leaving a cross standing on federal land when a service is over promotes Christian beliefs over others, which is not the role of the government. Federal park land is for all of us, whether we are Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, or none of the above," said Peter Eliasberg, staff attorney.
Bad Postal Precedent
The U.S. Postal Service announced late last year its plan to issue a postage stamp in 2001 to recognize the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, or "feast of fast breaking," that marks the annual fasting month of Ramadan.
Although the Post Office regulations forbid issuance of religious stamps, the Post Office began issuing "Madonna & Child" stamps in the 1960s. U.S. Muslim groups have lobbied for a stamp for years.
Since there are some 29 million unreligious Americans in this country compared to between five and 10 million Muslims, where is the postage stamp in homage to freethought?
The White Meadow Temple, a Conservative synagogue in New Jersey, filed suit this fall against a congregation member who quit the congregation, contending it was owed $1,455.02, including attorney's fees. Rockaway resident David Slossberg quit the temple in 1996, after being defrauded by an Orthodox Jewish business partner who later went to jail for his crimes. Slossberg told the rabbi he did not have the money to pay dues, nor did he wish to belong anymore.
The synagogue claims Slossberg signed an agreement, which it cannot produce, pledging "dues, assessments, pledges or donations" for the year 1996.
Charles Coppinger, 36, the Arizona Legislature's chaplain for the last four sessions, went on a 90-hour "spiritual fast" in late December to save his job, spending his nights outside the state capitol in an armchair, drinking diluted juice and taking only restroom breaks.
The Senate announced on Jan. 22 it will no longer have a chaplain, but will keep open the chaplain office for visiting clergy invited by lawmakers "to attend their spiritual needs."
Coppinger, whose position was funded privately, revealed last fall that he is gay, resulting in consternation by his conservative supporters. Also causing consternation was a revelation that he had settled embezzlement charges with a previous employee.
State Tax Dollars at Work
New York State taxpayers have spent nearly $2.5 million under the Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act to spruce up churches, synagogues and houses of worship around New York.
The Albany bureau of the Syracuse-Herald Journal (Dec. 18) revealed the legislation authorizing the $1.75 billion bond act, approved by voters in 1996, provides money to preserve properties listed on the state and national registers of historic places. Although the bill did not specify houses of worship among properties eligible for funding, it did not rule them out.
The Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation that administers grants to houses of worship requires that all work be exterior. State parks commissioner Bernadette Castro told the Herald-Journal: "The commissioner does not want something done that will allow only the congregation to enjoy, but rather the whole community to enjoy." The houses of worship are supposed to produce matching grants.
HUD Chastises Lutheran Program
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development "chastised" Lutheran Social Services of Northern California on Nov. 6 for placing HIV/AIDS patients in residential hotels that violate city housing codes and state elevator safety laws, according to the San Francisco Examiner.
HUD official Joan Hall said: "We made it clear that under HUD programs, we expect our housing funds are going to be used to house people in decent, safe and sanitary environments."
Council Prayer Criticized
The City Council in Redwood City, Calif., is unusual among Bay Area cities in starting meetings with a prayer led by local ministers. For the past two decades, Pastor Dennis Logie of Sequoia Christian Church has orchestrated the invocations as president of the Redwood City Clergy Association.
Following criticism by the ACLU, Mayor Ira Ruskin said he found the worship ritual "thought provoking." Council member Colleen Jordan told the San Mateo Daily News: "I believe government was never intended to be godless."
ACLU attorney Margaret Crosby, while admitting the Supreme Court ruled legislative prayer is allowable in the Marsh vs. Chambers case out of Nebraska in 1983, points out the California Constitution is far stricter than the federal.
Bible Classes Create Strife
Controversy is following adoption of bible classes at high schools, such as a class at Duncanville High School, Tex., taught by a retired pastor and former bible college professor. As many as 200 Texas public schools may offer bible studies, although the Texas Education Association doesn't keep track.
The Duncanville class is not a "bible as literature" class. The entire fall semester is spent on the "Old Testament" and the spring semester on the "New Testament." Students must memorize the books of the Old Testament and weekly assigned bible verses, "identify leading kings of Israel and Judah," and memorize the 23rd Psalm, among other assignments.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation launched a major complaint to the TEA in 1995, calling the Texas bible courses "Glorified Sunday School," and noting some school districts were actually using curriculum written for Sunday schools.
In Illinois, the Messac County High School is offering a course on the bible for the 2001-02 school year as an elective "history" class for juniors and seniors.
"To teach it as history, you have to teach facts and accept miraculous events," said ACLU spokesperson Ed Yohnka. "How do they plan to handle teaching the parting of the Red Sea, the Plagues of Egypt or being led by the voice of God? We find this whole approach to teaching bible in public schools troubling."
Utah Tax Credit Urged
A Republican state legislator plans to sponsor a bill in the 2001 session to grant taxpayers up to $2,500 in tax credits for sending students to private and religious schools. State Rep. John Swallow contends it's all in the name of "helping" public education. "We need to get our children taught on someone else's nickel. It's one way to save public schools," was Swallow's unusual rationale. The plan would siphon off $2,500 per student that would otherwise go to public schools.
A new nonprofit group called Children First Utah has raised $1.35 million--$1 million of that coming from John Walton, son of Wal-Mart's founder--to help send low-income children to private schools. Walton is helping to fund 76 Children First affiliates nationwide, then lobbying government to take over the programs. Utah has the smallest percentage of children attending private schools in the nation, at about 2.6% compared to the national average of 11%. Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt does not support tuition tax credits.
Polygamy Will Be on Trial
The first trial for polygamy in Utah since the 1950s has been delayed until late spring, but is putting the practice under the spotlight.
Tom Green, 52, who lives in a cluster of mobile homes in the desert with his 5 current wives and their 29 children, is charged with four counts of bigamy and one count of criminal nonsupport for $50,000 in welfare the state gave his family, as well as one count of child rape.
That charge stems from having sex with his common-law wife Linda, now 28, when she was 13. He married the 5 wives, including two sets of sisters, when they were between 13- and 16-years old. Green has had 10 wives since 1970. It took a 26-page diagram to illustrate all of Green's marriages, divorces and offspring.
Gov. Mike Leavitt, who himself is descended from a polygamous great-grandfather, originally did not favor prosecution of violations of Utah's 105-year ban on plural marriage.
"But this is a man who has taken 13- and 14-year-old children, deprived them of any education, married them, impregnated them, required the state to pay the bill and has raped a 13-year-old girl.
"If we can't prosecute for conduct like Tom Green's, we have no business prosecuting crime," Leavitt said.
The Utah legislature raised the state's minimum marriage age from 14 to 16 in 1998, after Tapestry Against Polygamy, a group of former polygamous wives, championed the reform.
Japanese Proposal Alarms Buddhists
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who just survived a recent no-confidence vote, has caused consternation by campaigning to emphasize religion in schools. Mori wants to update national curriculum guidelines for the first time since 1947, including placing "a perspective on religion" in public schools.
"We absolutely must not repeat the mistakes of prewar Japan, when the freedoms of thought and religion were trampled by compulsory religious education," wrote the head of a Buddhist group, Daisaku Ikeda. Shinto was Japan's state religion during World War II.
Last May, Mori got in trouble for saying, during a speech to Shinto religious officials, that Japan was a "divine nation" centered on the emperor.
Iranian Journalist "Defames Clergy"
The chief editor of the weekly magazine Cinema-Sport, journalist and cleric Ali Afshai, was defrocked and sentenced in late December to four months in prison for "defaming the clergy."
Prisoner: Police Used God
Condemned murderer Raymond Morrison Jr., 32, argued before the Florida Supreme Court in early January that it should overturn his conviction and death sentence because Jacksonville police took advantage of his Christian beliefs to get a confession.
Police officer Antonio Richardson, a church pastor, "ministered" to Morrison during the investigation and took him to the police department chapel. Morrison said he was coerced into giving a statement implicating him in the 1997 stabbing of an elderly, disabled man. Public Defender Chet Kaufman said police used church and religion as "law enforcement arms":
"They talked about prayer, they talked about getting right with God, they talked about being saved."
7th Circuit: Remove Decalog