Can Sikhs, Hindus get elected without converting?

WASHINGTON (RNS) What does it mean when the two best-known Indian-American politicians in American politics are converts to Christianity? In South Carolina, Nikki Haley won the Republican nomination for governor despite a whisper campaign that criticized her name and religion. Along with rumors of alleged sexual misconduct, many questioned the validity of Haley’s Christian faith. Some, including Republican state Sen. Jake Knotts, called her Christian conversion into question. Born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, Haley grew up as a Sikh in Bamberg, S.C., and converted to Methodism.

10 minutes with … Jeffrey Lena

(RNS) From a small office in Berkeley, Calif., attorney Jeffrey Lena tries to avoid publicity, despite the increasingly high-profile nature of his work as the Vatican’s U.S. counsel. As a sovereign immunity law specialist, Lena, 51, has spent the past decade defending the Holy See from lawsuits — most recently one that seek to hold Pope Benedict XVI responsible for crimes committed by local abusive priests and the bishops who protected them. Lena talked about Monday’s (June 28) decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to allow a 2002 Oregon abuse lawsuit against the Holy See to move forward, and how it would impact his legal defense in this and other cases in the U.S. (Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.) Q: What was your reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision, especially coming a month after the Obama administration filed a brief affirming the Holy See’s immunity? A: The Supreme Court has its own standards for deciding which cases it wants to hear. Generally, it looks for a clear split between different appellate courts before it takes a case.

Wednesday’s roundup

Religion Dispatches wonders whether Sen. Orrin “Anything I can do for the Jewish people, I will do” Hatch will support Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, who’s Jewish. A Baptist church outside Washington, D.C., will host a memorial service for Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., who died as a lifelong Baptist at age 92. Wisconsin’s Supreme Court today unanimously upheld a 2006 referendum that banned gay marriage. Opponents of California’s Proposition 8 that ended same-sex marriage say the SCOTUS decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (which said a Christian group can’t deny membership to gays and atheists if it wants public funding) recognized gays as a “protected class” and could help their case, currently awaiting a decision by federal Judge Vaughn Walker. The lead lawyer in efforts to sue the Vatican for priestly sex abuse called the SCOTUS decision not to block the suit the “biggest breakthrough in the movement’s history.”

Employees of the Vatican

It’s true enough, as Vatican lawyer Jeffrey Lena points out, that when the Supreme Court declines to hear a case, that cannot be taken as a pronouncement on the merits. Still, it’s interesting that the court lacked four votes to take up Doe v. Holy See, the Oregon lawsuit in which an anonymous plaintiff is seeking to get the Vatican to pay damages for his having been abused years ago by a now deceased priest. The case involves a threshold issue over whether such a suit is allowable under the 1976 Foreign Sovereign
Immunities Act, and you’d think that if the justices considered it a slam dunk for the defense, they would have granted certiorari rather than let the trial go forward.Be that as it may, the question of whether priests are employees of the Holy See seems a bit more complicated than recognizing (as Lena would have it) that the Holy See does not pay their salary and benefits or exercise day-to-day control over their work. The person who does those things is the bishop, and these days Catholic bishops themselves look increasingly like Vatican employees.Admittedly, Catholic ecclesiology does not neatly track U.S. employment law, but if the pope hires and fires bishops, and can create commissions of bishops to put a national church in order, and can order cardinals
not to criticize each other, then it sure looks as though they are wholly subject to papal authority. So why exactly should the sins of these sons not be visited upon the Holy Father?Coincidentally, the Supreme Court’s decision to let Holy See proceed occurred the same week that the Vatican announced a replacement for Cardinal Walter Kaspar, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and
the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews.

Orthodox woman named among 50 `Most Influential Rabbis’

(RNS) An Orthodox Jewish woman is one of Newsweek’s 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America this year, reflecting a major shift in the magazine’s fourth-annual compilation of top Jewish leaders. Sara Hurwitz, who debuts at No. 36, made headlines when Rabbi Avi Weiss (No. 18) of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, N.Y., granted her the controversial title of “rabba.” Although Newsweek calls her “the first Orthodox woman rabbi ordained in the United States,” the Orthodox movement does not ordain women.

Methodists certify seminary after concerns over identity

(RNS) The United Methodist Church has decided to restore ties and funding to a California seminary after assurances that it will remain a Christian school. Claremont School of Theology has met the criteria for keeping its affiliation with the United Methodist Church, according to an announcement on Friday (June 25). The school receives about $800,000 a year in funds from the UMC, according to the Los Angeles Times. Earlier this year, Claremont announced plans to join a multifaith coalition called the University Project that will also train Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams. The graduate schools for each faith will be separate, alleviating some concerns that Claremont would lose its Christian identity. The United Methodist Church placed Claremont on public warning last January and halted donations to the school, citing, among other concerns, “a substantial reorientation of the institution’s mission.”

Belgian officials say Vatican concerns are `over the top’

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Belgian authorities on Tuesday (June 29) called Vatican criticisms “over the top” after police raided the home of the country’s archbishop and the offices of a church-backed commission investigating clerical abuse. Pope Benedict XVI called the raids “surprising and deplorable,” and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone described the raids as unprecedented “even under communist regimes.” Responding to Rome’s strong reaction, Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere stressed the independence of the country’s judiciary and its freedom to investigate. “(There are) very elementary principles of having a separation of powers and accepting that the judiciary has to do its work,” he told Radio Netherlands. “That’s crucial for every democratic state.”

Church attendance inches up, Gallup says

WASHINGTON (RNS) A new Gallup Poll found that Americans’ self-reported church attendance has increased slightly since 2008. When asked “How often do you attend church, synagogue, or mosque?” 43.1 percent of Americans in 2010 said they attended church “at least once a week” or “almost every week.” That’s up from 42.8 percent in 2009 and 42.1 percent in 2008. Researchers previously believed that church attendance rises when economic times are bad.

Churches torn on whether to allow molesters in pews

(RNS) “All are welcome” is a common phrase on many a church sign and website. But what happens when a convicted sex offender takes those words literally? Church officials and legal advocates are grappling with how — and if — people who’ve been convicted of sex crimes should be included in U.S. congregations, especially when children are present: — Last week (June 23), a lawyer argued in the New Hampshire Supreme Court for a convicted sex offender who wants to attend a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation with a chaperone. “What we argued is that the right to worship is a fundamental right, and the state can only burden it if it has compelling interest to do so, and then only in a way that is narrowly constructed,” said Barbara Keshen, an attorney with the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union who represented Jonathan Perfetto, who pleaded guilty in 2002 to 61 counts of possessing child pornography. — On Monday (June 28), the Seventh-day Adventist Church added language to its manual saying that sexual abuse perpetrators can be restored to membership only if they do not have unsupervised contact with children and are not “in a position that would encourage vulnerable individuals to trust them implicitly.”

Churches opt for starting own humanitarian agencies

(RNS) Members of Metro Community Church in Englewood, N.J., support the missionaries sent by their denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, to the Congo, but Africa is a distant and dangerous trip from the 400-member flock. “We can’t send our short-term missionaries there,” said Stephen Sharkey, the church’s life ministries pastor. Church members wanted something hands-on. For a while, they helped build villages for AIDS orphans for an organization featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, but they were discouraged by gaps they saw in the foreign aid system. Three years ago, they took matters into their own hands.

Tuesday’s roundup

Two big decisions from the Supreme Court came down yesterday. In the first, SCOTUS ruled 5-4 that a law school can deny recognition to a Christian student group that won’t let gays join. In the second, SCOTUS refused to hear an appeal from the Holy See (the U.S. government had signed on as amici) dismissing a lawsuit that blames the Vatican for transferring a sexually abusive priest. The Vatican’s lawyer noted that the ruling did not comment on the merits of the case. Senate Republicans blasted SCOTUS nominee Elena Kagan for restricting military recruiters at Harvard Law School, where she was dean.

COMMENTARY: No laughing matter

NEW YORK (RNS) My heart chilled when I read about teenagers who gather on the Great Lawn of Central Park and flaunt laws against underage drinking. Many attend the independent schools lining the park, including the school from which my 18-year-old son just graduated. Yes, my son grimaced, he knows all about these kids. They are 11 to 14 years old. They walk onto the lawn carrying six-packs of beer.

Kagan trumps the Barak card

So Sen. Grassley plays Robert Bork’s “how can you admire that activist Israeli Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak” card:”I am troubled by the fact that you hold up Barak as a judicial role model,”
Grassley said. “He’s been described as creating a degree of judicial power
undreamed of by most U.S. justices.” Grassley quoted Barak saying “a judge has a role” in the lawmaking process
and asked Kagan if she agreed. Kagan said she did not, but also noted that Barak operated in a fundamentally
different system — one without a written constitution. “Justice Barak’s philosophy is so different from anything that we would use
or would want to use in the United States,” she said.

No Religious Freedom to Discriminate?

Reporting on yesterday’s 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the NYT’s Adam Liptak described the case as a clash between “religious freedom and antidiscrimination principles.” But actually it was a proxy war. Neither religious freedom nor antidiscrimination clashed as such.At issue was the refusal of California’s Hastings School of Law to recognize–i.e. provide official recognition and material support for–the Christian Legal Society (CLS), because it required all members to disavow “unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral
lifestyle–i.e. no unrepentant gays and lesbians need apply. This violated the school’s policy requiring student groups to admit all comers.As Justice Alito’s dissent points out, the school had adopted its all-comers policy out of a belief that its previous antidiscrimination policy would be harder to defend before the Court. It’s hard to disagree with the Times’ editorial that, whatever the tactical advantage of “all-comers,” a straightforward ban on discrimination was the moral way to go.

Tanzanian Lutheran leader backtracks on U.S. donations

(RNS) The leader of the largest Protestant church in Africa, after saying he would refuse money from U.S. Lutherans who support homosexuality, appears to have backed down after meeting with leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “I hope there will be time to discuss it,” said Presiding Bishop Alex Malasusa, head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, in an interview. “We have been with the ELCA for a long time, so we hope there will be room for discussion.” The 5.3 million-member Tanzanian church — the largest Lutheran body in Africa — had said in April that it would reject the “money” and “support” of those who support the “legitimacy” of same-sex marriage. Malasusa had also told The Citizen newspaper in Tanzania that “It’s time Africa preached to the rest of the world, and remind them of God’s word.”