Bias at the Religious Freedom Commission

Here you’ve got the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom struggling to get out from under persistent (and, yes, reasonable) charges that it is more interested in making the Muslim world safe for Christian missionaries than in evenhandedly tracking religious freedom issues around the globe. And who does it appoint as its new executive director? Jackie Wolcott, a former Bush administration nuclear proliferation expert with no experience dealing with religious freedom, who most recently has served on the Advisory Board of United Against Nuclear Iran, “a non-profit
organization dedicated to preventing a nuclear Iran and exposing Iran
as a major violator of human rights at home and abroad.”Bias? The appointment certainly gives the appearance thereof. All the more reason for the State Department to get on the stick and name its religious freedom ambassador.

SSRC’s Religion Blogosphere

Yr humble proprietor is happy to let you know that this blog has been included among “nearly 100 of the most influential blogs that contribute to an online discussion about religion in the public sphere and the academy” in a new report by the Social Science Research Council. OK, you’re asking, how many non-influential such blogs are there? Now now, the number, no doubt, is legion. Anyway, it’s a good report, and worth pondering for anyone concerned with how, in the shrinking legit news environment, knowledge about religion in American public life is going to continue to flow. I have a few reflections that I’ll link to as soon as they’re posted over on SSRC’s Immanent Frame.

Germany’s top Lutheran bishop admits to drunk driving

BERLIN (RNS) The head of Germany’s Lutheran church faces a monetary fine and a temporary loss of her driver’s license after being caught driving with a blood alcohol content three times above the legal limit. Bishop Margot Kaessmann, 51, was arrested Saturday (Feb. 20) in the central German city of Hanover after she ran through a red light in her church-owned car, reported the EPD news agency, the official news service of the Evangelical Church in Germany, or EKD. Tests showed that Kaessmann had a blood alcohol level of 0.154, according to the Hanover state’s attorney. Driving with a level of more than 0.05 is illegal in Germany.

Clergy seek IRS probe of D.C. mansion

WASHINGTON (RNS) A group of 13 Ohio clergy is asking the Internal Revenue Service to investigate a Washington mansion used by conservative members of Congress that claims a tax exemption as a church. The C Street Center, a red brick townhouse on Capitol Hill, came to public attention last summer after the disclosure of its ties to several Republican politicians who had admitted to extramarital affairs. The three-story townhouse is less a church than an “exclusive club for elected officials,” the Ohio clergy charged in a statement on Tuesday (Feb. 23). The group, called Clergy VOICE, also filed IRS complaints in 2006 and 2008 against conservatives for allegedly running afoul of tax laws that require nonprofits to remain neutral in political elections.

Germany’s top Catholic bishop apologizes for abuse

BERLIN (RNS) The head of Germany’s Catholic Bishops Conference apologized Monday (Feb. 22) for sexual abuse of children at church-run schools that happened decades ago but only recently caught public attention. “I am deeply shaken by the abuse cases that have come to light. We reacted as soon as they were made public,’ said Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, chairman of the conference, speaking in Freiburg. Zollitsch promised a review of 2002 standards designed to prevent such abuse and promised full cooperation with authorities investigating the crimes, which only came to light when a former Jesuit priest now living in Chile wrote a letter of apology to former students.

City seeks tax on shuttered Catholic churches

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (RNS) The doors of St. Peter Catholic Church are chained and padlocked. The sign out front reads “for sale.” St. Peter and four other churches were recently closed by the Diocese of Syracuse to save money.

Black churches team up to tackle problems facing black men

WASHINGTON (RNS) The leaders of three black Methodist denominations are joining together — for the first time in 45 years — to address unemployment, crime and other problems that disproportionately affect black men. “When people talk about us being in an economic downturn, that’s nice talk for the general community, but for the African-American community, we are in depression,” said Senior Bishop John R. Bryant of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “Our people are hurting. They’re hurting financially and we want to put our heads together and our hearts together to see what we can do to try to ease that kind of pain,” he said. Bryant’s church, along with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, are planning a “Great Gathering” for March 1-3 in Columbia, S.C. that is expected to attract thousands of church members.

COMMENTARY: Same problem, different responses

COLUMBUS, Ohio (RNS) A church conference here was a stark contrast to rage-filled political conventions taking place elsewhere. Facing the same economic frustrations and cultural worries, as well as a grinding internal “recession” in church membership, Episcopal leaders from southern Ohio gathered with enthusiasm about tomorrow, trust in their leaders, and a palpable desire to make the necessary changes for better days. By contrast, recent political gatherings have dissolved in rage, calls for anti-government violence, a rush to arms, and a surge in intolerance toward any views but their own. Same conditions. Same angst.

Tuesday’s roundup

President Obama released his own health care plan on Monday; it takes the Senate bill as its starting point. The Catholic Medical Association says Washington should tear up existing plans and start again from the beginning. A conservative Catholic group says Obama’s bill should be opposed because it doesn’t bar public funding of abortions. No word yet from the USCCB or CHA. Thirteen Ohio clergy say Washington’s infamous C Street House, which was used as a home-base for conservative Christian politicians like S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford, should not be granted a tax exemption because it’s not really a religious establishment, and have asked the IRS to revoke it (the exemption).

Old law, young age

Blogger Andrew Sullivan is having fun today with his discovery that the age of consent in Vatican City is only twelve years old. But as his very post makes clear, the law in question was carried over from a 19th-century Italian criminal code, which reflects the norms and mores of a still pre-industrial society. Given the scarcity of children in the 108-acre city state, the Vatican evidently hasn’t seen the need to bring the law up to date. For much the same reason, as this blog reported last year, no one in the Vatican saw the need until recently to enact any laws against possession of cocaine.

Buffalo finds success in new life for old churches

BUFFALO, N.Y. (RNS) Amid the closings of Catholic churches across the Northeast and Midwest, local officials — vexed by visions of vacant buildings in struggling neighborhoods — might want to take a look at what’s happening in Buffalo. Despite a weak real estate market, the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo has found surprising success in selling its closed churches — often hulking, high-maintenance, heat-draining structures. To date, the diocese has sold 38 of the 77 church properties it closed during a three-year downsizing plan that began in 2005. “Despite the economy, we have not seen a drop-off” in interest, said diocese spokesman Kevin Keenan. “These are unique properties and there has been a significant number of people interested in them.”

Meae culpae in Germany

Top Lutheran apologizes for drunk driving.Top Catholic apologizes for sexual abuse of children at church schools.Top Lutheran faces criminal investigation and possible loss of job.Update: And top Lutheran resigns.

Lying to Gallup, part 2

Very close readers of this blog will notice a little dispute I’ve been having with SIU sociology professor Darren Sherkat (Go, Salukis!) over how to think about the tendency of Americans to fib about their church attendence. I made the argument that there may be less regional variation than Gallup indicates, because people in states where regular church attendance is more the norm are more likely to over-report their churchgoing. Sherkat takes me to task for not applying this logic to aggregate American church attendance over time. His point is that in all likelihood, the alleged decline in attendance over the past half century is a figment of self-reporting, because fibbing was more likely decades back when weekly churchgoing was more the norm nationwide. So if anything, I suppose, church attendance should actually be up from what it used to be.That there is a fibbing problem has been clear for a while now, thanks to studies by Hadaway et al.

Muslim women launch long-ditch effort to remove prayer partitions

(RNS) The walls that segregate Muslim men from women inside many American mosques took a long time to go up, and it could be a long time before they come down. Just ask Fatima Thompson, 44, who on Saturday (Feb. 20) led a group of 10 women and two men in a “stand-in” at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., hoping to persuade leaders at the stately mosque on Embassy Row to remove a seven-foot partition that separated men (in front) from women (behind). “Every woman should be able to stand with the congregation. That’s the correct way,” said Thompson, who converted to Islam 18 years ago.

Israel adds West Bank shrines to protected sites list

JERUSALEM (RNS) A decision to include two West Bank shrines in a list of Jewish heritage sites slated for preservation has been praised by religious and right-wing Jews and scorned by Palestinians and their supporters. Speaking at a Sunday (Feb. 21) cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would add Rachel’s Tomb and The Tomb of the Patriarchs to the list of dozens of heritage sites he unveiled last week. Netanyahu has pledged more than $100 million to revitalize Jewish heritage sites and build an historical trail linking them. Israeli media said Netanyahu took the step after religious members of his government blasted the sites’ exclusion.