Atheists vs. Detroit

The City of Detroit Development Agency offered to pay half the cost of renovating St. John's Episcopal Church. American Atheists took the city to court, saying that the grant violated the establishment clause of the Constitution--and as such, the city has withheld the payment to the church.

The Christian Post is reporting that the federal court has ruled against the atheists.

“Churches cannot be treated as second class simply because they are religious institutions. They have the same right to reimbursement for physical improvements as all other entities have,” said Dale Schowengerdt, a counsel for the Christian legal group Alliance Defense Fund, in a statement.

“No reasonable person would consider a church’s receipt of contractually-promised reimbursement to be a government endorsement of religion. The court agreed that the church was rightfully allowed to be part of the city’s program,” he argued.

The City of Detroit Development Agency made a contract with St. John’s Episcopal Church to improve its outer appearance to help boost the city’s image before the 2006 Super Bowl and to spur economic development in the area, according to ADF, which represented the church’s interests in the suit.

Read the rest.

Here's more background from the Detroit Free-Press, last month.

The Associated Press has the fuller picture:

U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn ruled Wednesday that the Detroit Downtown Development Authority should not have awarded the churches matching grants. He said it violated separation between church and state because some of the money was spent on improving large signs and stained glass windows containing religious imagery.

But Cohn ruled that most of the roughly $736,000 was OK because any downtown property owner was eligible to apply and the Central United Methodist Church, Second Baptist Church and St. John's Episcopal Church used the grants on improvements such as lighting, parking lots, sanctuaries and landscaping.

Found here.

In God we trust

October 1 will mark the 50th anniversary of the appearance of “In God We Trust” on the paper currency of the United States. Despite the Establishment Clause, "In God We Trust" (which is also the national motto) has survived repeated legal challenges, and has the strong support of the American public.

The Pew on Religion and Public Life offers a perspective as we near the 50th anniversary:

Many people see the “In God We Trust” motto and other official evocations of a creator as a reflection and acknowledgement of America’s rich religious heritage. Supporters also contend that the motto is simply a recognition of the fact that the people of the United States have always relied on “divine providence.”

But others argue that the government’s evocation of God in any official capacity amounts to the establishment of a state religion, which is prohibited by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Critics also say that “In God We Trust” is divisive because it excludes those who don’t believe in God, as well as Buddhists, Hindus and others who follow non-monotheistic faiths.

An overwhelming majority of Americans support using “In God We Trust” on the country’s currency and as the national motto. For instance, a 2003 Gallup poll found that 90 percent of respondents approved of the use of the motto on coins. A separate Gallup poll in 2004 found that a similar majority expressed support for retaining the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

The constitutionally of the motto has been challenged more than once, but so far judges have ruled that its use does not violate the First Amendment’s prohibition on the establishment of religion. In the first case challenging the motto, Aronow v. U.S. (1970), the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that “its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise.” The case was not appealed to the Supreme Court.

Subsequent challenges have also been turned aside, including the Supreme Court’s refusal in 2005 to hear an appeal to a lower court ruling that the placement of “In God We Trust” on a government building was constitutional. In 2006, a federal district court affirmed the constitutionality of the motto in a suit brought by California doctor and attorney Michael Newdow that sought to have it removed from the nation’s currency. Newdow had previously gained notoriety when he had similarly tried – unsuccessfully – to have “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance.

In general, judges have differentiated the “In God We Trust” motto and similar references to the deity (including the phrase “under God” in the pledge) from other publicly sponsored religious practices, such as prayer and Bible reading in public schools. Most courts view the motto and the pledge as “ceremonial deism,” a legal term for religious statements that are deemed to have lost their fundamental religious character due to their longtime, customary use.

Although the term “ceremonial deism” was first coined in the early 1960s, the government’s acceptance and use of customary religious statements dates back to the nation’s beginning. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, makes reference to God on more than one occasion. And the same Congress that in 1789 passed the First Amendment prohibition on the establishment of religion also started each day with a prayer, as does the current Congress.

The official use of “In God We Trust” dates back to the Civil War era. In 1861, the Rev. M. R. Watkinson, a Christian minister from Ridley Township, Pa., sent a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase urging “the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.” Chase agreed and ordered the director of the mint to prepare a motto for use on coins. The director proposed “God, Our Trust”; Chase altered the phrase to “In God We Trust,” which first appeared on a two-cent coin in 1864. The next year, Congress authorized the mint to put the motto on all silver and gold coins that had space for the phrase.

In the decades following the Civil War, “In God We Trust” appeared on most coins. And since 1938, the motto has appeared on all American coinage. In 1956, during the height of the Cold War struggle with the officially atheist Soviet Union, Congress passed a joint resolution, signed by President Dwight Eisenhower, declaring “In God We Trust” to be the national motto. The following year, on Oct. 1, the motto appeared for the first time on paper currency – on the back of the dollar bill.

Read it all here.

Illinois mandates moment of silence

From Associated Press religion briefs yesterday, an Illinois Democrat in that state's legislative body successfully changed a law so that schools now are required (rather than have the option) to have a moment of silence at the beginning of each school day, despite the Illinois governor's veto of the measure. Critics are decrying the slippery slope towards "compulsory school prayer," even though the one-word change in the law isn't about prayer at all, says its author, Rep. Will Davis:

An Illinois law called the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act already allowed schools to observe a moment of silence if they wanted. The new provision changes just one word: "may" observe becomes "shall" observe.

The sponsor of the change, Rep. Will Davis, a Democrat from Homewood, said his goal is not to open the door for teachers to lead their classes in morning prayer but help students calm down and think about their plans.

It's the first story in the briefs round-up, here. Other items of note include a new president of the National Association of Evangelicals, if you're curious about that sort of thing, and another small-town brouhaha over a Nativity scene landing the issue on that locale's Nov. 6 election ballot. (We can see the signs now--Vote for the Baby Jesus!)

A little levity for your morning Café fare. Now, back to your moment of silence...

Bishop Chane speaks out for Farm Bill

As the United States Senate began floor debate on the nation's Farm Bill, Washington Bishop John Bryson Chane and five other faith leaders spoke at a news conference November 6 calling for Senators to pass a Farm Bill that creates a "new covenant" with rural America and people living in deadly poverty around the world.

According to Episcopal Life Online a new ad was unveiled at the news conference, signed by 26 Episcopal bishops, calling for the Senate to pass several key amendments to the Farm Bill designed to restore "the moral foundation" of a bill that was created by Congress in the 1930s as a "covenant" with rural America and people in need.

"Congress created the first Farm Bill to be an expression of the character of America and a covenant with farmers rooted in fairness, equity, and opportunity for all," said Chane. "Today's Farm Bill has strayed far from this vision, benefiting primarily large, rich farms while adding to the struggles of hard-working family farmers and exacerbating deadly poverty around the world."

Read more here.

To urge your Senator to vote for the Farm Bill click here.

Religious freedom and 'pious cruelty'

Ethan Fishman in The American Scholar:

For much of its history, the United States has largely avoided the religious conflicts that have cost other nations countless lives. Our ability to escape such conflicts is grounded in the Constitution’s First Amendment, which requires government to maintain as neutral an attitude as possible toward religion. Fortunately for Americans, past presidents as a rule have sought to honor this neutrality. Today, however, the Bush administration, working with certain religious denominations, seeks to repudiate it.

Drawing on the thinking of Roger Williams, who was exiled from Puritan Massachusetts and founded the Rhode Island colony, he writes:

The Bush administration has ignored Roger Williams’s warning about the corrosive effects on both church and state of the lethal combination of national arrogance and religious self-righteousness. That contrasts with the reactions of Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison at the turn of the 19th century when North African Muslim pirates were seizing American ships and capturing their crews. The pirates were fond of using quotes from the Koran to justify their criminal activities, and the United States responded in a variety of ways to protect its political and commercial interests in the Mediterranean: they sent in the Navy and the Marines, paid protection money, and ransomed the crews. But these presidents never considered their war against the Muslim pirates to be religiously motivated or to have any religious significance at all.

Since the attacks of September 2001, Bush has insisted on calling America’s reaction a war on terror, and his statements have contained religious imagery comparable to that used by Osama bin Laden. University of Chicago religion professor Bruce Lincoln observes in Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11 that both Bush and bin Laden use language that refers to “a Manichean struggle, where Sons of Light confront Sons of Darkness, and all must enlist on one side or the other, without possibility of neutrality, hesitation or middle ground.” The implication of both leaders’ rhetoric is that God supports what may be called a war of “pious cruelty.”

Read it all.

All Saints Pasadena vindicated in IRS case

All Saints Church announced today that the IRS has confirmed that it has closed its investigation of the Church, and the Church will not be subject to excise tax in connection with any alleged political campaign intervention. All Saints also reported that, in light of its experience in defending against its own examination, and to support all churches, synagogues and mosques who speak truth to power in the prophetic tradition, it plans to work through federal legislative channels to increase the legal protections available for freedom of the pulpit from ill-founded or politically motivated tax investigations.

Read it all here

Episcopal Life Online reports here

Wealth Gospel foundering?

For many years people have suggested that if there is a uniquely American contribution to heresy, it is that of the "Health and Wealth" gospel. The basic idea is that God showers (material) blessings on believers. Thus the more material goods one has, it follows, the more faithful a believer one is. Proponents of the message would challenge this simplified version and would point to many passages in the bible that support their claims.

Over recent years a large group of preachers in America (and in Africa) have begun though to teach this prosperity gospel as a central theme of their message. It follows that the preacher must live out what she or he preaches. So many of the most popular and influential preachers point to their affluent life styles as proof of the depth of their faith.

But their wealth is coming from gifts given by their followers, often given as "seeds of hope" with the expectation that God will reward the giver many times more. And the wealth has not always been properly accounted for in the mind of federal and state tax authorities.

So today, the AP has news describing a move by these authorities to examine the books of the various preachers and ministries:

"Proponents call it a biblically sound message of hope. Others say it is a distortion that makes evangelists rich and preys on the vulnerable. They say it has evolved from 'it's all right to make money' to it's all right for the pastor to drive a Bentley, live in an oceanside home and travel by private jet.

'More and more people are desperate and grasping at straws and want something that will alleviate their pain or financial crisis,' said Michael Palmer, dean of the divinity school at Regent University, founded by Pat Robertson. 'It's a growing problem.'

The modern-day prosperity movement can largely be traced back to evangelist Oral Roberts' teachings. Roberts' disciples have spread his theology and vocabulary (Roberts and other evangelists, such as Meyer, call their donors 'partners.') And several popular prosperity preachers, including some now under investigation, have served on the Oral Roberts University board.
Grassley is asking the ministries for financial records on salaries, spending practices, private jets and other perks. The investigation, coupled with a financial scandal at ORU that forced out Roberts' son and heir, Richard, has some wondering whether the prosperity gospel is facing a day of reckoning."

Read the rest here.

Church investigated by IRS over Obama speech

The United Church of Christ is being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service over a speech Senator Obama gave at a church conference in June:

The IRS has notified the UCC that it has opened an investigation into Obama's address at the UCC's 2007 General Synod in Hartford, Conn., the UCC said yesterday.

According to a copy of an IRS letter that the church received Monday, the IRS is launching the inquiry "because reasonable belief exists that the United Church of Christ has engaged in political activities that could jeopardize its tax-exempt status."

Under federal law, churches are barred from becoming directly or indirectly involved in campaigns of political candidates.

According to a text of the speech posted on the church's Web site, Obama promised to sign a universal health care bill in his first term as president, and he denounced the Iraq war.

Read it at The Trail a political blog of the Washington Post.

The UCC has issued a press release announcing the creation of a legal defense fund:

In a Feb. 27 letter to members and supporters, General Minister and President John H. Thomas said the fund was necessary "to ensure that money given for mission will not be needed to pay legal bills, instead of ministry needs."

"In order to adequately defend ourselves as well as protect the broader principle of the freedom of religious communities to entertain questions of faith and public life, we will need to secure expert legal counsel, and the cost of this defense, we are told, could approach or exceed six figures," Thomas wrote. "This is troubling news."

From the church's own reporting of the investigation:

In an introduction before Obama's speech, Thomas said Obama was invited as "one of ours" to provide reflections on "how personal faith can be lived out in the public square, how personal faith and piety is reflected in the life of public service."

Thomas said the IRS's investigation implies that Obama, a UCC member, is not free to speak openly to fellow UCC members about his faith.

In its reporting on the speech at the time the AP wrote

“But somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and faith started being used to drive us apart. Faith got hijacked, partly because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, all too eager to exploit what divides us,” the Democratic presidential candidate said in a 30-minute speech before a national meeting of the United Church of Christ.

Episcopal Policy Initiatives

The Episcopal Public Policy Network, an official part of the Episcopal Church can only participate in initiatives that have clear sponsorship by the General Convention or Executive Council. So far, in the years following the most recent General Convention, this work has focused on native american initiatives, climate change, immigration, and economic parity.

But according to a recent communication from the network, their work right now is tracking the following particular areas this spring:

  • Indian Health Care Improvement Act Amendments of 2007 -- S. 1200 -- The first update of critical Indian Health Care in 16 years passed the Senate 83-10 in February and is awaiting consideration by the House. We will let you know when the time is right to contact your Representatives.
  • America's Climate Security Act -- S. 2191 -- This bill has still not made it to a vote in the Senate, but all the attention on Earth Day and on global warming should help move it. See the Presiding Bishop's letter of support here.
  • SAVE Act -- H.R. 4088 -- This is the punitive immigration legislation whose House sponsors are working to bring it to a vote without due process and consideration. They need 212 signatures on their petition and currently have 186 -- if you haven't sent a message to your representative, you can still take action here.
  • Jubilee Act -- H.R. 2634 -- This debt relief bill passed the House by a strong vote of 285-132 and now awaits consideration by the Senate. We will let you know when the time is right to contact your Senator.
  • The GROWTH Act -- H.R.2965, S.2069 -- This legislation to promote economic opportunities for women in developing countries is awaiting action in committees in both the House and the Senate.

If you're interested in more information about these initiatives or would like to get involved, you can find more information about the EPPN's work here.

Marriage equality on the move

Developments in California and New York suggest that the nation's largest states are moving much faster than the Episcopal Church in recognizing the legitimacy of same-sex relationships.

The Sacramento Bee reports on a recent Field Poll:

Signaling a generational shift in attitudes, a new Field Poll on Tuesday said California voters now support legal marriage between same-sex couples and oppose a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

By 51 to 42 percent, state voters believe gay couples have the right to marry, according to a May 17-26 poll of 1,052 registered voters.

However, the same poll revealed a California electorate that remains sharply divided over gay marriage – split by age, political affiliation, religion and the regions where they live.

In San Luis Obispo, gay couples are queing up to get married on June 17, the first day such marriages will be performed.

And across the continent, the state of New York is preparing to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Updated: the California campaign to pass a constitutional amendment against gay marriage is going to be expensive, and will involve a familiar figure, Howard Ahmanson, who thinks it is okay to stone homosexuals.

On the anti-same-sex marriage side, the donors are led by a pair of wealthy Southern California businessmen who are also evangelical Christians. Fieldstead & Co., the company owned by billionaire financier Howard Ahmanson, gave $400,000 in February and March to the committee behind The California Marriage Protection Act. Christian radio magnate Ed Atsinger has donated $12,500. Both live in Southern California. Each man gave $100,000 to back Prop. 22 in 2000.

Just to refresh memories, here is how Ahmanson explained his views on homosexuality to the Orange County Register in August 2004:

"I think what upsets people is that [his one-time spiritual leader, the Christian reconstructionist John] Rushdoony seemed to think--and I'm not sure about this--that a godly society would stone people for the same thing that people in ancient Israel were stoned. I no longer consider that essential."

However, he added:

"It would still be a little hard to say that if one stumbled on a country that was doing that, that it is inherently immoral, to stone people for these things. "But I don't think it's at all a necessity."

There you have it, the brutal murder of homosexuals isn't essential, but it isn't inherently immoral.

Should the Church have special status?

The Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali has written an essay on the dangers that a declining Church of England pose to that nation, and how a declining consistent Christian voice will lead to a moral vacuum that "radical Islam is threatening to fill. Simon Barrow, writing in the Guardian takes Nazir-Ali to task and attempts to refute his main points.

Simon Barrow writes:

"Nazir-Ali is not, as some of his critics will want to claim, a stupid or bigoted man. He is, rather, a representative of a whole swath of opinion (some of it militantly Christian and some of it agnostic but conservative) that finds itself up a cultural cul-de-sac and cannot think of anywhere to go but backwards - towards an imagined society of stability and order based on allegedly Judeo-Christian values.

Much like the idea that churches used to be full to the brim in the Victorian era, a popular misconception punctured by the research of Professor Robin Gill and others, this notion holds little water. The era of Christendom in Europe, one where institutional religion found a secure and privileged place in the social order in exchange for pronouncing its blessing on governing authority, is coming to an end. For many of us, Christians included, that is a sign of hope not despair.

In a bygone era, organised Christianity did indeed play an important role in encouraging education, instilling civic virtue, promoting social reforms and populating great campaigns like the one to abolish the transatlantic slave trade. But it also blessed wars, maintained a hierarchical social order, used its place in public life to serve its own interests, and justified many of the evils that its sons and daughters subsequently struggled against.

So the ethical legacy bequeathed by the established religion that Nazir-Ali lionises is a very mixed one. It is not a case of the virtuous past versus an iniquitous present. Indeed, when it comes to some of the greatest positive changes of recent history (such as the extension of the franchise, the emancipation of women, labour rights, decolonisation and environmental consciousness), churches have often been dragged kicking and screaming into the process of change."

The article concludes with this call in response to the main point of Bishop Nazir-Ali's argument that Christendom is of critical importance to creating civilized society, and that an effort to remove the Church from a central and special role in society will create a moral vacuum:

What we need instead [of a special status for churches] are more churches that can be actively seen as places where hospitality, forgiveness, peacemaking, economic sharing, love of enemies, care for the outsider and restorative justice is going on. These are the gospel's building blocks for a better society. They come from free participation and cooperation, not the top-down attempt to impose a single ideology.

Read the full article here.

Thinking Anglicans has coverage of this as well, with many additional links to discussions of Bishop Nazir-Ali's remarks.

South Carolina to offer cross license plates


In an action guaranteed to cause a legal challenge, South Carolina will soon be offering license plates that feature a cross and the phrase “I Believe”:

South Carolina drivers will be the first in the nation to be offered license plates that carry the phrase “I Believe” and a Christian cross over a stained-glass window under a law that took effect on Thursday.

Critics have threatened to fight the law in court, saying the license plate represents an illegal state endorsement of religion.

The bill authorizing the plate passed the State House and Senate unanimously on May 22. It became law without the signature of Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, under the South Carolina Constitution.

“While I do, in fact, ‘believe,’ it is my personal view that the largest proclamation of one’s faith ought to be in how one lives one’s life,” Mr. Sanford wrote on Thursday in a letter to Glenn F. McConnell, president pro tem of the Senate and a fellow Republican.

. . .

Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Jewish Congress said they were considering suing the state over the plate. Neither organization was aware of any previous state that has approved a similar plate. A proposal for an “I believe” plate in Florida failed in April.

“The whole issue here is that people are trying to get the state to endorse their religion, and that’s wrong,” said Dr. T. Jeremey Gunn, director of the A.C.L.U. Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “It’s almost as if there’s insufficient support, and they have to go to the state to get it.”

Senator Lawrence K. Grooms, the co-sponsor of the bill, rejected that argument.

“I didn’t see a constitutional problem with it,” said Mr. Grooms, a Republican who is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “We have other plates with religious symbols on them and phrases like ‘In God We Trust.’ Just because it’s a cross, some very closed-minded people don’t believe it should be on a plate.”

Read it all here.

So, is this an accomodation of religious belief or a violation of the Establishment Clause?

Stopping religious discrimination in the workplace

Citing changing demographics and a steady increase in complaints from people of faith, a federal agency last week released an updated compliance manual on religious discrimination in the workplace according to USA Today.

Read more »

IRS surfing church websites

New York Times:

Even as the increasing Web fluency of religious organizations has flung their doors wide to a new world of potential followers, it has also opened the gates for all to see what may have been intended only for the faithful in the pews. Now, I.R.S. investigators, as well as groups that monitor churches’ political activity, can do much of their work with a simple Google search, or a surfing of YouTube posts.
Since the early 1990s, when the revenue service imposed severe penalties in several high-profile cases, including a two-year revocation of the tax exemption for Jerry Falwell’s “Old Time Gospel Hour,” most religious organizations and clergy members have been careful to keep within the I.R.S. limits.
If a cleric appears on his or her church’s Web page endorsing or attacking a candidate, she said, that is clearly no different from a sermon in the pulpit.

But links on the same page, to other sites connected directly or indirectly to partisan groups, are a more complicated matter. In one recent I.R.S. memo, the question is addressed with almost Talmudic intensity, urging enforcement agents to explore the issue of "electronic proximity — including the number of ‘clicks’ that separate the objectionable material from the 501(c)(3) organization’s Web site.”

The Church in uncertain financial times

There are a number of stories starting to appear that are all basically attempts to think theologically about what is happening in the world's financial markets. There appears to be consensus that the Church calls us to live more simply and less extravagantly.

Some of the stories are continued reflections on the speech given by the Archbishop of Canterbury earlier this week, and on remarks by the Archbishop of York calling "short-sellers" thieves. While the reaction to Archbishop Williams' remarks was mixed in the financial community, there has been strong support for his words in evangelical circles according to a post on the blog Christian Today.

[Evangelical] leaders spoke out after the Archbishop of Canterbury criticised the greed and lack of regulation that have led to the current global financial crisis, whilst the Archbishop of York asked why action for the poorest is deemed too expensive when hundreds of billions of dollars have been found to bail out troubled banks.

...Dr R David Muir, Executive Director of Public Policy at the Evangelical Alliance said: “We live to consume and now our greed is consuming us; we are reaping the consequences of always wanting more. Our way of life is based on the assumption that there is always more money available, more money to buy more things."

..."Rather than supporting the institutionalisation of greed with vast public expenditure why can’t we resist the urge for always wanting more and live within our means?”

But Simon Barrow wonders if there's anything the Church, in it's present mode of accommodation with secular society, has to say to the world.

Under Christendom, the accommodation of institutional religion with governing authority, the churches have largely bought into (literally) the economic status quo. That needs to change. In the past 100 years we have seen that neither unfettered free markets nor a state-controlled command economy can 'work'. But what does it mean for an economy to work?

If we are all, as the New Testament suggests, to envision ourselves as members of a household established on principles of grace, justice, sharing and participation (the word oikonomia links household management with modern economics and with the oikumene, the whole inhabited earth seen as God's gift), then we need to cultivate practices and structures that point towards that - and which declare to the "there is no alternative" ideologues of right and left that there is an economic alternative - one which grows out of real people, real needs, human scale, and the adaptation of structures and mechanisms from those perspectives.

Bodies like the New Economics Foundation (NEF) have long been seeking to encourage, theorise and develop fresh perspectives on the basis of the many alternatives that already exist, from local trading schemes and co-ops right through to taxation on speculation, environmental credit, and major changes in global financial institutions and regulations.

What do you think? Is the Church, as presently constituted, too close to the seat of power to be able to speak prophetically in this moment? Is this even a time that calls for a word of prophecy? Will the calls by Archbishops and society chairs be "outside" enough to be recognized as coming from God?

You can pray in school

Paul V.M. Flesher, professor of religion at the University of Wyoming, writes on the issue of prayer in school.

The school year has almost arrived, again. This seems like a good moment to revisit that continually confused and confusing issue, prayer in schools. There is a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding of what kind of prayer is permitted in the public schools of the United States of America. So let me take this column to review what is and what is not allowed with regard to prayer in public schools.

What kind of prayer is allowed in a public school?
Everyone and anyone who goes to a school may pray there. "Everyone," that means students, teachers, staff and administrators, may offer a private prayer to the divine at anytime they choose. "Anyone," that means any person of any religious faith, be they Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, or Mormon, or Native American, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, or Wiccan. Thus praying in the schools is permitted to everyone there, as long as it is private and personal, and does not interrupt legitimate school activities.

It is also OK for students of like beliefs to join together to pray, whether informally ("let's meet at the west door before the bell") or more formally in a religious club of voluntary membership. This club may meet on school property, such as in a classroom, at times when clubs are usually allowed to meet. The only exception to this is if the school has banned clubs altogether. The rule of thumb is that religious clubs must be treated the same as other clubs.

Similarly, it is permitted for teachers, staff, and even administrators to join together voluntarily to pray. Again, this may occur in formal or informal settings.

What kind of prayer is not allowed in a public school?
It is not OK to pray in a school in way that would knowingly or unknowingly coerce anyone of a different belief to join in. Thus teachers, principals and others in a position of authority should not use that position to persuade, require, expect, or intimidate students or others under their supervision to take part in prayer that they otherwise would not. Schools are inherently hierarchical and those who are higher in the hierarchy should do nothing that would seem to exercise that position to make those below them pray.

Similarly, prayer should not be part of public school functions. Although this rule can be a bit vague, the main principle is clear. A general prayer offered in a manner designed to be inclusive of all present, whatever religion they adhere to and articulating generally positive sentiments agreeable to them, is sometimes acceptable, if not done too frequently. Graduation ceremonies can usually include this kind of prayer. Prayers that adhere to a single doctrinal line or reflect a non-inclusive theology do not belong at school functions, even if said by a student.

In general, prayer should not be conducted in such a way to exclude or stigmatize those who do not participate in or follow a particular religion.

Finally, participation in prayer should not be used as a basis to reward or promote those who take part or to withhold such rewards from people who do not.

These rules, both positive and negative, are designed to ensure every individual's freedom to believe and worship as they choose, and to prevent the power of the state (as exercised by the school and its employees) from interfering with that right. Those who do not follow such rules may be exercising what they see as their own religious freedom, but they will be doing it at the expense of the religious freedom of others.

Flesher is director of UW's Religious Studies Program. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the Web here and here.

The faith-based initiative: Bush and Obama

The Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy has a link-studded overview of the Bush faith-based initiative, and gives a look toward how Obama would adapt the program. Obama has said that faith-based initiatives would be a real part of his White House's operation and that Bush underfunded the program.

Steven Waldman argues that the Faith-based initiative could be one of several fault lines that could appear between Obama and amongst religious liberals:

Unlike many secular Democrats, most liberal religious groups were pleased when Mr. Obama promised during the campaign to expand rather than eliminate President George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative. But behind the scenes, they were quite worried about Mr. Obama’s promise to make it illegal for faith-based groups to limit hiring to people of their own faith. The position thrilled civil libertarians but raised concerns among some nonprofits that Mr. Obama would go too far in restricting the operations of religious groups.
Contrast Waldman's view with the Andre Willis' expressed at The Root:
If the past eight years have been dominated by prominent conservative evangelicals like Pat Robertson and James Dobson, the Obama years may be the era of Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo, social-justice-minded evangelicals in the model of Walter Rauschenbusch and Martin Luther King Jr.
Domestically, look for an overhauled office of faith-based initiatives. In Denver, the Democratic Party's first "faith caucus" engaged a spirited discussion on the role and relevance of such programs and how they might differ from similar policies offered by George W. Bush. Most likely, the least of these thrusts of progressive evangelicalism will empower the already flourishing network of Christian social programs that emphasize economic equality and burgeoning anti-poverty movements. The warriors in this fight will not only be religious figures. Marian Wright Edelman has been framing poverty as a moral/religious issue for the last 35 years, even though conservative evangelicals would never claim her (or she them).

National Cathedral inaugural prayer service clergy identified


The Inauguration Committee has only released one clergy name so far for the Jan. 21 National Prayer Service that caps the inauguration. The Rev. Sharon Watkins, the first woman president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a Protestant group, will deliver the sermon.

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"So help me God"

I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

The 35 words of the presidential oath of office are found in the Constitution. "So help me God" is not among them.

NPR Morning Edition

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Prayers for the Inauguration

UPDATE: with the Rev. Dr. Lowery's full text. To see video of the invocation and benediction, click Read more at the bottom of this item.

Christianity Today reports both the invocation and benediction prayers:
From the Rev. Rick Warren:

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Texas bill would allow courts to decide church property issues

According to Capitol Annex "...a Texas state legislator has introduced a bill which appears to be geared toward addressing property issues resulting from the secession of former congregations of the The General Convention of The Episcopal Church in the United States over the ordination of openly gay clergy."

The legislation, House Bill 729 by State Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), would direct Texas courts to divide church property “in a manner that the court considers just and right.”

The bill is narrowly crafted only to apply to schisms as a result of doctrinal differences and then only to divisions that result in a unit of an organized denomination’s church or diocese seceding from its ultimate ruling body.

Although evidently geared to address the property concerns of Episcopal Churches who have abandoned the Anglican Communion or the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., the bill is drafted to apply to any religious organization that qualifies as such under the Texas Tax Code so long as the religious organization is organized “into orders or ranks each subordinate to the one above it,” and specifically mentions churches, synagogues, and mosques.

Read more here.

Information on his district and biography of Representative Cook is here.

Ed. note: The law seems to go out of its way to make clear it's not trying to be
retroactive. Read here.

SECTION 2. This Act applies to a factional separation of a hierarchical religious organization as those terms are defined by Section 30.001, Property Code, as added by this Act, occurring on or after the effective date of this Act. A factional separation of a hierarchical religious organization as those terms are defined by Section 30.001, Property Code, as added by this Act, that occurs before the effective date of this Act is governed by the law in effect on the date that the application was filed, and the former law is continued in effect for that purpose.

SECTION 3. This Act takes effect September 1, 2009.

Churches and solutions to poverty, environment

Churches are becoming more involved with systemic answers to poverty, lack of health care and the environment, as well as offering hands on services.

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Separation of church and state with President Obama

The American Prospect asks if President Obama acknowledged nonreligious Americans in his Inaugural Address will his administration re-separate church and state? Paul Waldman in his weekly column writes:

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California breakaway churches lose in court again

The California Supreme Court has denied a re-hearing in the Episcopal Church Cases, concerning the three parishes in the Diocese of Los Angeles who tried to leave the Episcopal Church and take the church's property with them. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the Trial Court. Supreme Court action is here. Scroll down to the bottom of the screen.

The case isn't over yet but this looks very much like the end of the line, in a legal sense, for the three churches.

H/T to comments at the Friends of Jake blog.

DOMA laws: religious power through exclusion

"DOMA Laws have been passed with the support and lobbying of religious groups. Such laws point, unfortunately, to a deep tendency of religions to consolidate power through exclusion, as Miroslav Volf has so cogently shown; these laws have no rationale for their existence apart from that exclusion. People who wish to "defend" [against] corrosive influences on marriage – and I count myself as one – might actually find allies among gays and lesbians who desire public recognition for their pledges of fidelity and their commitments to share resources and responsibilities with one another. A true defense of marriage would not involve mean-spirited exclusions, but would embrace practical policies that strengthen deep trust and support families facing economic challenges,"
- Jon Pahl, Professor of the History of Christianity in North America at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

H/T to Andrew Sullivan.

Debunking myths

The Boston Globe reports that several prominent religious leaders from Massachusetts are lending their support to the campaign for the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York state. They told New Yorkers that gay marriage has not affected religious freedom in the Bay State.

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Souter's departure will change the church-state mix on the Court

The knee jerk reaction when would that Justice Souter would be retiring was that because Obama would like appoint someone with similar views to Souter the balance on the court would not change for the immediate future. As time to digest the announcement has passed more nuances are being seen.

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Reconsidering the initial response to the Prop 8 ruling

Everything you thought you knew about today's Calif Supreme Court Ruling on Prop 8 may be wrong!

While the initial analysis of the decision treated the ruling as a defeat for gay rights activists, an examination of pages 36-37 suggest otherwise:

The scope of the exception created by Proposition 8, however, necessarily is determined and limited by the specific language and scope of the new constitutional provision added by the ballot measure. Here the new constitutional provision (art. I, § 7.5) provides in full: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." By its terms, the new provision refers only to "marriage" and does not address the right to establish an officially recognized family relationship, which may bear a name or designation other than "marriage." Accordingly, although the wording of the new constitutional provision reasonably is understood as limiting use of the designation of "marriage" under California law to opposite-sex couples, and thereby modifying the decision in the Marriage Cases, supra, 43 Cal.4th 757, insofar as the majority opinion in that case holds that limiting the designation of "marriage" to the relationship entered into by opposite-sex couples constitutes an impermissible impingement upon the state constitutional rights of privacy and due process, the language of article I, section 7.5, on its face, does not purport to alter or affect the more general holding in the Marriage Cases that same-sex couples, as well as opposite-sex couples, enjoy the constitutional right, under the privacy and due process clauses of the California Constitution, to establish an officially recognized family relationship. Because, as a general matter, the repeal of constitutional provisions by implication is disfavored (see, e.g., In re Thiery S. (1979) 19 Cal.3d 727, 744; Warne v. Harkness (1963) 60 Cal.2d 579, 587-588), Proposition 8 reasonably must be interpreted in a limited fashion as eliminating only the right of same-sex couples to equal access to the designation of marriage, and as not otherwise affecting the constitutional right of those couples to establish an officially recognized family relationship.

(emphasis added.)

John Culhane writes:

The majority went on for almost 140 pages. In brief, their points - which I'll next explore in somewhat greater depth - are these:
(1) The California Constitution is easy to amend, and that's not something we can change:
(2) The deprivation of rights isn't that big a deal, really, because all that's been removed by Prop 8 is the word "marriage" rather than the rights that go with it;
(3) Based on precedent and constitutional history, Prop 8 is a permissible amendment to the state's constitution - not a more substantial revision, which would require prior submission to the legislatures (and a 2/3 approval) before going to the voters;
(4) There's no separation of powers problem here: Everyone's doing their constitutional job; and
(5) The Attorney General's "novel" argument that certain rights are "inalienable" and therefore immune from the vagaries of majority rule, has no traction.

A commenter at Andrew Sullivan's site writes:
Have been through the Prop 8 opinion and dissents. It appears that this is a blockbuster pro-gay-rights decision, restricting the effect of Prop 8 to the effect of removing the designation of gay civil unions as "marriage," but upholding all equal rights previously declared by the Court; and, suggesting that if the opponents of gay rights were to try to restrict equal union rights for gays by constitutional change, such change would be an Amendment (not a revision) and thus would be procedurally much more difficult to accomplish. Being able to lay claim to the word "marriage" is important, but in all other respects this appears to be a spectacular decision in favor of gay rights..

The following bloggers are still untangling the decision, but they see it as a victory for marriage equality activists.

Daily Kos.

IT at Friends of Jake.

Testifying to love

The Rev. Will Scott of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco explains why he got arrested in a protest following the California Supreme Court's decision upholding Proposition 8.

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New Hampshire Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage

Six states and Dick Cheney have now dared to go where the Episcopal Church will not.

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Bishop Robinson reflects on marriage equality in New Hampshire

Bishop Gene Robinson has shared with us an email he sent to friends on Thursday after spending the previous day lobbying the New Hampshire legislature on behalf of marriage equality legislation.

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"The never ending search for the common good"

Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire gave a lecture recently at Emory University on "Why religion matters in the quest for gay civil rights."

Ireland reasserts blasphemy laws

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the church, in non-General Convention related news; the Irish Government has been given broad new powers to use police force to suppress "blasphemous statements".

Jason Walsh writes in his report:

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Jimmy Carter leaves Southern Baptists

Former President Jimmy Carter has decided that he must, after 60 years of membership, leave the Southern Baptist Convention of churches because of their stance which insists on the submission of wives to their husbands.

President Carter writes in an essay posted on "The Age":

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Gay marriage IS a defense of marriage act

Susan Russell, President of Integrity writes:

BREAKING NEWS FROM MASSACHUSETTS! Gay Marriage IS a "defense of marriage act!"

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Obama preaches the moral "we" - Diana Butler Bass

The Constitution of the United States begins with "We the people," and the the Nicene Creed begins with "We believe." Seeing the world through eyes that recognize our interconnectedness is a deep one in political and religious life. Episcopalian Diana Butler Bass notes that President Obama urged the nation to see health care through the lens of the "moral we""

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Bishops care about health care

Bishops Working for a Just World to lobby for health-care reform

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Churches make prayer beads for troops

Beads link prayers
Women create strands of comfort for troops

From Tulsa World

Strewn across a large table are clear bags filled with beads in multiple shades of blue, purple, green and red. Every Thursday, a group of about six to eight women at St. Luke's Episcopal Church sits around the table and strings the beads together to make prayer beads to send to soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Religious leaders offering input to G-20

Religious leaders told their input is valued
By Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Standing in the lobby of a Downtown hotel, a key adviser to the U.S. delegation to the G-20 Summit promised an array of religious leaders that he would carry their concern for the poor into the economic conclave.

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Same-sex marriage coming soon to D. C.?

Tim Craig in The Washington Post:

Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill said it appears unlikely that Congress will block a bill to be introduced Tuesday that would allow same-sex marriages in the District.

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Don't ask. Don't tell. Doesn't work.

You know that society is moving toward the acceptance of gay relationships when Joint Force Quarterly , a prestigious journal published by the National Defense University Press for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gives the top prize in its 2009 essay contest to a systematic dissection of the U. S. Military's policy of Don't Ask. Don't tell.

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Supremes hear cross arguments

High Court Hears Religious Symbol Case
From NPR News

The U.S. Supreme Court took on a long-running legal fight Wednesday over an 8-foot cross in the Mojave Desert.

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How the lead counsel for the Diocese of Colorado saw the Grace & St. Stephen's case

An essay in a Colorado law firm's soon-to-be-published newsletter sheds new light on the Grace & St. Stephen's case in Colorado Springs from the perspective of the diocese's lead attorney.

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Separation of church and sports?

Sam Cook: Florida Gators' Tim Tebow's mission should be to win games, not souls
From the Fort Myers News-Press

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Obama signs Hate Crimes Law

President Obama keeps promise to sign an expanded Hate Crimes Law.

PROMISES, PROMISES: Obama Keeps Word on Hate Crime
From the Associated Press and the New York Times

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Andrew Sullivan is fed up

In his "Daily Dish" blog at The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan writes that he is fed up with the Roman Catholic Church's anti-gay actions.

A Gay Catholic Now?
by Andrew Sullivan in The Atlantic

It is time to acknowledge that the Catholic church hierarchy can no longer pretend that it isn't the active enemy of gay people and our families. That this church hierarchy - especially in its more conservative wing - is disproportionately gay itself and waging war against their fellow gays through the cowardly veil of the closet, is not new. But it is, as we flinch with the sting of defeat, harder to take than ever.

Parliament debates women bishops

Could sex discrimination laws be applied to religious organizations? This is a rather sticky wicket in the United States with our separation of church and state. However, in England, Parliament is taking up the question as it applies to the Church of England. It is helpful to remember that the Church of England is the officially established Christian Church in England with the queen holding the title of the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

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On a fateful anniversary, a Kennedy tussles publicly with his bishop

If we're used to hearing only about one Kennedy on Nov. 22nd, who could blame us. But several sources (such as CNN) reported today that Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D - R.I.) has been effectively barred from Communion by Thomas Tobin, Roman Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Providence, owing to the representative's stance on abortion rights.

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UK laws allowing discrimination ordered to be redrafted

Under the present law of the United Kingdom, religious organizations are given a very broad ability to not hire people because of their sexual orientation. Apparently too broad, at least according to a European Commission ruling with regard to an EU directive.

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The ABC and the POTUS: two of a kind?

On the's "God's Politics" blog, LaVonne Neff compares the current resident of the White House with the current residence of Lambeth Palace. After expressing her admiration for Obama and Williams, she asks two important questions.

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Rev. Kapya Kaoma on Rachel Maddow

Rev. Kapya Kaoma, the Project Director of the progressive think tank PRA (Political Research Associates), was on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show on Wednesday night to discuss Uganda's anti-homosexuality legislation and the U.S. Right's involvement.

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Danforth gives $30M for Religion in Politics Center

Former United States Senator (and retired Episcopal priest) John C. Danforth's foundation gives $30 million dollars to establish a center which will explore the role of religion in politics:

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Haitian ambassador responds

On the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC tonight, Raymond Joseph, the Haitian ambassador to the United States, responds to the strange and odious statements by Pat Robertson based in junk theology and a misreading of the facts of history.

Haitian ambassador shames Pat Robertson

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The ABC and the PB at the UN

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presiding Bishop visit the United Nations and meet with the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon

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Obama spiritual but not religious?

A year ago, churches in the DC Metro Area were all atwitter about where the First Family might be attending church. Since that time, President Obama has only attended church a handful of times in the DC area, but The Washington Post's Anne E. Kornblut claims that the president's spirituality runs deep, and has profound effects:

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Obama to meet with Dalai Lama

Despite protests from China, President Obama will meet with the Dalai Lama:

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House of Lords votes for same sex marriage in churches

Ekklesia reports

In a dramatic development, the House of Lords has voted to allow the use of religious premises and religious language in same-sex partnerships.

Sitting yesterday evening (2 March), peers voted in favour of the proposal by 95 votes to 21, despite opposition from the government and several Church of England bishops.

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VA Governor acts

After hearing criticism from many quarters, including Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, and from businesses who are discerning whether to locate in Virginia, Virginia's Governor Bob McDonnell counters his own Attorney General on just how much protection gays and lesbians have under Virginia law.

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Churches engaging politics

The National Congregations Study was published this week by Duke University, and can be found HERE and it offers much to reflect upon for churches and church leaders.

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Yet another reason women are needed in leadership

Citing a question posed recently in a Newsweek cover story titled "What Would Mary Do? How Women Can Save the Catholic Church from Its Sins," the Arizona Republic looks at a few possible answers, expanding its query to Episcopalians and Lutherans.

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ABC challenges Lord Carey's confusion over immigration

In a challenge to the arguments being put forward by Lord Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury has said that those worried that migration affecting ‘British identity’ demonstrate ‘confusion’.

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Economic sanctions for Middle East peace?

The National Executive Council of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship (EPF) has called for economic sanctions for Middle East Peace, but at least one member of the EPF, Bishop John Chane of Washington thinks sanctions would be "dangerously unhelpful." What is the best and most effective approach to take? Comments welcome, as always..

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The theological roots of Social Security

Diana Butler Bass reflects upon the Feast of the Ascension which also commemorates Francis Perkins, who was instrumental in the creation of Social Security. Did you ever ponder the spiritual and theological roots of Social Security? Read on...

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Touching the 3rd rail of church and state

If you are reading this today you are well aware that the 4th of July fell on a Sunday this year. Are you thinking your congregation makes too much of the Fourth?

Take our church and state quiz.

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Tea Party Movement = Unbiblical?

The Washington Post's On Faith section asks, "Is the Tea Party unbiblical?":

Is the Tea Party unbiblical?
From "On Faith" at The Washington Post

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The faith of presidents

Washington Post's "On Faith" asks the question, "Does Obama's religion matter?" What say ye, good and faithful Episcopal Cafe readers?

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Speaking of diminishing Christian witness...

We're lifting up an update made to an item posted yesterday. Those who've read or commented upon "Armstrong pleads no contest" will recall that The Rev. Don Armstrong, who's been fighting charges of felony theft arising from his tenure as rector at Grace & St. Stephen's Church in Colorado Springs, recently pleaded "no contest" in exchange for a deferred judgment and sentence.

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Is charity work an excuse for avoiding justice work?

"Had I but one wish for the churches of America I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice. Charity is a matter of personal attributes; justice, a matter of public policy. Charity seeks to eliminate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity in no way affects the status quo, while justice leads inevitably to political confrontation." - The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., from his book Credo.

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Obama describes his journey with Christ

In Albuquerque, President Obama took time Tuesday to answer the question, “Why are you a Christian?” in an extended answer. Will this satisfy those who still think he is not a Christian?

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Mormon leader apologizes for Prop. 8

Mormon Elder Marlin K. Jensen listens to the pain and hurt caused by Prop. 8, and responds by apologizing for his role in the campaign to enact the proposition.

Mormon Leader: ‘I’m Sorry’ For Hurtful Legacy of Prop. 8

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God's plan; my plan?

Herb Silverman at the Washington Post's "On Faith" ruminates on what "God's plan" might be, and what it is that politicians are doing when they assert that "God's plan is my plan.

How DO we know if what we're doing matches up with God's plan?

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Will gay couples be left out of immigration reform?

Will immigration reform leave out binational gay couples?

Immigration reform: binational gay couples fear they'll be left out
From Episcopal News Service

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Religion in the mid-term election

Religion News Service has an interesting news roundup on the day after the mid-term elections:

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Knowledge casts out fear - DADT

The Rev. Tobias Stanislas Haller has posted a wonderful piece on his blog, In a Godward Direction, on "Don't ask don't tell." Check it out:

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Myth of American religious exceptionalism

Robert Jones writes in The Washington Post's On Faith about the myth of American religious exceptionalism:

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Tea Party leader hates Christians

Religion Dispatches reports that a key Tea Party leader hates Christians, especially Methodists.

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Theocracy not so bad to Roberta Green Ahmanson

Julie Ingersoll of Religion Dispatches looks at a recent interview in Christianity Today of Roberta Green Ahmanson, wife of Howard. Ingersoll says that most reporters do not understand the depth and importance of the theology behind Ahmanson's support of religious right causes, including his support of the undermining of the Episcopal Church over the last decade, and so miss the impact on our culture and politics.

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Barbara Bush is for Marriage Equality

Barbara Bush, daughter of President George W. Bush, is in favor of marriage equality.

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Democracy and a role for religion in Egypt?

Writing in The Washington Post's "OnFaith" blog, Dr. Reza Aslan reflects on democracy and religion in Egypt:

Do Egyptians want both democracy and a role for religion in their government?

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CA Supreme court on same-sex marriage

Key issue in battle over same-sex marriage to be considered today by California Supreme Court

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Obama orders end to defense of Defense of Marriage Act

Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, says Obama to the Department of Justice

Obama declares Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional
The president orders the Department of Justice to stop defending Defense of Marriage Act in court

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Analysis of Obama's DOMA decision

How should we understand Obama's decision on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)?

The Meaning of Obama’s DOMA Decision
Jim Burroway in BoxTurtleBulletin

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Protesting the death penalty in CT

State's Religious Leaders: End the Death Penalty
Dozens of religious leaders rallied in Hartford Tuesday to advocate the abolition of Connecticut's capital punishment law
In the North BranfordPatch online

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A Conflict? Religious liberty vs. same sex marriage

Marianne T. Duddy-Burke, the Executive Director of DignityUSA asks the question: "Is there really a conflict between religious liberty and same sex marriage?"

Religious Liberty vs. Same Sex Marriage: Is There Really A Conflict?

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What "rapture" theology tells us about ourselves

What might the recent hullabaloo about the May 21st "Rapture Theology" might tell us about ourselves:

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Presidential Proclamation on LGBT Month

The President has presented a Presidential Proclamation on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Month. Read an excerpt from the press release below:

Presidential Proclamation--Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month

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Irish political class loses fear of the church

The Catholic Church's own misdeeds has vastly diminished its dominance of politics in Ireland. The result is that Ireland has become a modern secular state. This is clear from the verbal pounding the Irish Prime Minister delivered to the Holy See (see below). So says Henry McDonald in a Guardian op-ed:

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In New York, LGBT wedding planning apace

Sara Tracey reports on the wedding plans of a gay New York couple, Joseph Eppink and Ralph Panelli, as they move quickly toward a mid-September ceremony. (Eppink is Music Director and Organist at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Albany.)

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Celebrating Ramadan at the White House

President Obama spoke at the Iftar dinner last night.

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Taxpayer-funded discrimination

Nicole Neroulias of Beliefnet asks whether religious organizations that receive federal subsidies--sometimes significant federal subsidies--should be allowed to discriminate in hiring, or to force employees to worship.

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Tax credits for churches?

Episcopal Church Foundation Vital Practice reports:

Last week, Bishop Curry of the Diocese of North Carolina learned that two of the congregations in his diocese were eligible for a tax credit through the Health Care Act of 2010. Kristin Hoyle, a Raleigh CPA specializing in nonprofits who worked with these congregations, contacted the Diocesan Canon for Administration so that information about this credit could be shared throughout the diocese.

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Churches sue to stop Alabama's Immigration Law

Clergy in Alabama sue to try to stop Alabama's new anti-immigration law:

Clergy Sues To Stop Alabama's Immigration Law
by Debbie Elliot in NPR News online

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Catholic Charities v. Illinois

Catholic Charities and the best interests of the foster child
By Mark Silk in Spiritual Politics

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Religious leaders oppose anti-LGBT legislation in NC

Religious leaders in North Carolina line up to oppose the anti-LGBT legislation:

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English judge ties priests to bishops in sex abuse cases

Riazat Butt reports for The Guardian that a judge has found in favor of an accuser in a clerical sex-abuse scandal, noting along the way the certain "crucial features" that identified the accused with the Catholic parish he represented.

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Plate-spinning: Texas panel to entertain crosses on car tags

The thing about interest groups working with government is -- well, they're interested in stuff. Some are even interested in Jesus.

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Historic landmark designation spells death for many churches

The Atlantic Cities explores the question of what can be done with historic church buildings:

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"Christianity deserves better worshippers"

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a practicing Muslim, begins an essay by decrying the disingenuous use of religion by political power structures as a means to achieve their secular ends. She has extremely harsh words for the theocracy of Iran, and the ruling family of Saudi Arabia. And then she turns to Britain and sees the same behavior by the Prime Minister Dave Cameron:

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Supreme Court recognizes “ministerial exception” to job discrimination laws

UPDATE: see below

The New York Times reported on a decision by the Supreme Court, excerpted below:

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Teen complaint towards prayer banner in public school leads to lawsuit, outrage, and a scholarship

Rhode Island teen Jessica Ahlquist complained about a prayer banner hanging in the auditorium at Cranston High School West that referred to "Our Heavenly Father" in July of 2010.

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Church's activism at work during Holy Week

A scan of the newswires shows a busy last couple of days for The Episcopal Church in the world of activism.

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Obama: Easter story sustains, strengthens

In his third "pre-Easter" breakfast held today, President Obama said the Easter story is a touchstone for strength in hard times.

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Did clash over crosses cost instructor her job?

From the New York Times:

Last fall, Sissy Bradford, an adjunct instructor who taught criminology at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, questioned why crosses were being placed near the public university’s entrance. Last month, she was informed that the university would not offer her any courses to teach in the fall semester. Ms. Bradford insists there is a connection, but university officials deny any link.

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Catholics aim to keep Jesus on Big Mountain

As Catholic Bishops in the U.S. plot public relations strategy to improve their public image, I suggest they throw in with the Knights of Columbus in Montana, who are working to make sure a statue of Jesus Christ stays where it is on Forest Service land on Big Mountain.

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Religious restrictions on the rise worldwide, Pew survey shows

A study released today by the Pew Forum shows that religious intolerance is on the rise globally, and that a majority of the world's population live in countries with "high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion," a 5 percent increase percent over the previous year. The Guardian reports:

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Nuns on the Bus weigh in on Ryan budget

Following last week's presidential debate, and in anticipation of the vice-presidential debate to come, E.J. Dionne sits down with Sister Simone of the Nuns on the Bus cause.

Nuns on the Bus has been particularly critical of the proposed Ryan budget.

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Judge rules couple can't change last name to 'ChristIsKing'

A Staten Island Judge, citing separation of church and state, ruled yesterday that a couple cannot change their last name to "ChristIsKing."

The same judge denied a request six years by the same couple to change their son's name to "JesusIsLord." The couple, Michael and Angela Nwadiuko, subsequently went to Virginia where a judge ruled in their favor on that one.

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Secular Christians

Friends of Jake blog discusses the ideas in a new book called "Faitheist" that argues for non-believers and people of faith to work together. Quoting from Patheos, FOJ writes:

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An idiot's guide to church and state in the UK

Frank Cranmer has a created a useful guide to understanding church and state in the United Kingdom, which is not only needed by politicians and religious leaders there and is also a useful primer for Episcopalians.

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Rhode Island House votes today on gay marriage

The Rhode Island State House is expected to pass a bill today that would legalize gay marriage, though the measure faces opposition in the Senate. The New York Times notes that Rhode Island is the "last holdout in New England" on this issue, and is "one of several states, including Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota and New Jersey, where supporters of gay marriage are trying to make legislative gains this year."

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Protesting yoga in school

When is touching your toes just touching your toes and when is it teaching Hinduism, and what about Bible study? Katherine Stewart writes at Religion Dispatches:

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Group battles for religious freedom of (Christian) soldiers

From U.S. News & World Report:

A group of military chaplains is launching a campaign to protect religious freedom in the U.S. Armed Forces – but only for service members of the Christian faith.

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Same-sex marriage becomes law in England and Wales

From the BBC News report that the law has its final approval:

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Humanist seeks to become military chaplain

Jason Heap holds master’s degrees from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University and Oxford University, and is close to finishing his doctorate. He teaches religious studies and is a scholar on 17th-century Baptist literature. He wants to be a Navy chaplain.

But he doesn't believe in God. Stars and Stripes reports:

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Group questions IRS ban on pulpit politicking

The Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations has called for greater clarity regarding limits on political endorsements from the pulpit. From Religion News Service:

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Map shows religious affiliation of members of Congress

How well are Episcopalians represented in the U.S. Congress? Well, we're ahead of the Lutherans and Presbyterians, but Catholics, Baptists and Methodists have us beat. Check out this map from BuzzFeed. Here's the state-by-state breakdown in list form.

What religious liberty is... and isn't

The Rev. Susan Russell states in The Huffington Post that religious liberty is not the liberty to impose your religion on everybody else. Then she gives some illustrations as to what religious liberty grants, and what becomes "imposing":

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Icelandic Elves block road project

The Guardian in the UK reports that an extensive road project has been shelved due to an environmental group's concerns about elves. The matter will now be decided by the Supreme Court.

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Bishop asked to pray at Prayer Breakfast

In another example of why you should always know how to pray off book, even as Episcopalians, President Obama closed the annual Prayer Breakfast today by inviting retired bishop of New Hampshire, Gene Robinson, to pray for the group.

+Gene chronicled the unplanned moment on Twitter, calling it as privilege.

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UCC files lawsuit against North Carolina

The United Church of Christ filed a lawsuit in federal court today, arguing that their religious freedom was being violated as a result of North Carolina's Amendment 1, passed in 2012.

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Justice Thomas: Constitution does not bar adoption of state religion

As the U.S. Supreme Court pondered the question of prayer at government meetings, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote this week that the First Amendment of the Constitution does not preclude states from establishing state religions if they choose to do so. From the Wall Street Journal Law Blog:

While the rest of the Supreme Court argued Monday over the constitutional limits on official prayers at town board meetings, one justice said the question may be beside the point.

In a separate opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that while the First Amendment “probably prohibits Congress from establishing a national religion,” it wasn’t intended to restrict states from adopting their own official religions. Under this view, not only could state or local officials ordain religious exercises for their meetings, they could use tax dollars to fund an official church. He cites the clause “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” saying that “choice of language…effectively denied Congress any power to regulate state establishments.”

Read full story here. (The Los Angeles Times notes that even Justice Antonin Scalia wouldn't back Thomas on this one.)

Examining the cost of the World Cup

The FIFA World Cup, the largest sporting event in the world, is about to kick off in Brazil this week.  

Soccer, or football, as the rest of the world calls it, is the most popular sport in the world--best attended games, most fervently followed, most widespread.  And its worldwide Super Bowl kicks off this week. 

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Updated, part 2: SCOTUS issues Hobby Lobby ruling

Today, the Supreme Court issued its ruling on the case brought against the contraception mandate in the new Affordable Care Act.

Written by Samuel Alito, the Court decided in a 5-4 decision that closely held corporations owned by religious people do not have to provide contraception they disagree with.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Kennedy expanded the thinking of the majority to explain that the ruling is limited to contraception only--it does not extend to other medical procedures that would conceivably be religiously objectionable, such as blood transfusions or organ donation.

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Further Hobby Lobby reaction, analysis

The internet continues to react to the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in the Hobby Lobby case, in which they determined that closely-held corporations can claim religious exemptions to providing contraception to their employees.

Here's some early reaction.

Mother Jones gives you the 8 best lines in Justice Ginsberg's dissent here. if you need it in soundbites.

Yahoo News gives you a longer analysis of her dissent here. Notably, she points out that this decision will open the door to all manner of problems in employer-provided health care. What happens when employers object to providing coverage for narcotic pain medication? Or organ transplants? Or hospice care? What, specifically, makes contraception coverage different?

The White House chimed in, with the President issuing a statement, saying that the decision today put the health of women employees at risk across the country.

Tobin Grant, a blogger for the Religious News Service, describes this as a win for religious liberty, but a blow for women's health, though narrow in both directions.
He explained:

And the Court went out of its way to stress the relative narrowness of its decision today. During oral arguments in March, Justice Kagan wondered whether, should the Greens prevail, future employers may deny covering blood transfusions or vaccinations in insurance coverage on religious grounds. Others worried that employers may use this decision to justify discrimination in hiring on religious grounds.

Today’s majority opinion quickly and explicitly dispatched most of these concerns. But the Court did not address whether religious employers denying homosexuals employment would fall under RFRA protection – that is apparently a question for another day.

Read the piece here.

Religious News Service did get a full reaction round up, available here.

For more analysis, head to Think Progress weighs in with why this decision is a problem for religion, saying, in part:

These voices represent the majority of religious Americans who insist that today’s pro-Hobby Lobby decision isn’t about protecting “religious liberty.” Instead, it’s just a victory for one kind of religion, specifically the (usually conservative) faith of those privileged enough to own and operate massive corporations. That might be good news for the wealthy private business owners like the heads of Hobby Lobby, but for millions of religious Americans sitting in the pews — not to mention thousands working in Hobby Lobby stores — their sacred and constitutional right to religious freedom just became compromised.

Upset about Hobby Lobby decision? Knit a brick

The Secular Coalition for America is extending the deadline for its "Knit A Brick" campaign, an effort to protest the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision by creating knit bricks to "rebuild the wall of separation" between church and state. The group is asking supporters to knit or crochet rectangular bricks to be delivered to the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House. The deadline is Aug. 5.

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Members of Congress go back to school

The head of the US Jesuit Conference has written to the Congressional alumni of Jesuit schools, urging them to do more on immigration reform, and live up to the principles they were taught in school.

The Jesuits specifically called for an end to deportations, and more aid for the victims of human trafficking, and unaccompanied minors who came to this company seeking asylum. The letter was sent to 12 Republicans and 31 Democrats in the House who were Jesuit-educated, and was written by the Rev. Thomas Smolich, the US head of the order.

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Justice Dept. files suit against town for blocking Islamic center

145px-Allah1_no_honorific.pngThe US Justice Department has filed a suit against the town of St Anthony, Minnesota for violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act passed by Congress in 2000. Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports:

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Christ Church Cathedral, St. Louis, to have 24-hr vigil

Some time before January, a Grand Jury will decide if any charges will be brought against Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for his shooting of Michael Brown. There is fear and concern over what will then happen.

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