On other side of church closings, new reasons for hope

CLEVELAND (RNS) Holly Nixon used to need only 10 minutes before the 9 a.m. Mass to pick up her elderly, disabled mother and find a parking spot close to the sanctuary door. That was before St. William Catholic Church in Euclid merged with nearby St. Robert Bellarmine, which then closed, shifting hundreds of people into St. William’s pews.

Friday’s roundup

CNN says some (semi) high-profile evangelicals are under fire for their participation in tomorrow’s “Restore Honor” rally hosted by Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin in DC; some Christians are nervous about Beck’s Mormon faith, even though they worked with Mormons to outlaw gay marriage in California. Conservatives are happy, though, that the FCC will appeal a federal judge’s ruling that struck down its policy against “fleeting expletives” on TV. The NYT profiles the developer of the Park51 Islamic center and finds that he “has yet to secure financing, hire an architect, incorporate the nonprofit entity that will run the center, start its fund-raising, recruit its board members, or present formal feasibility studies and business plans to community meetings.” WaPo looks into the widespread hostility directed at U.S. Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan. The Muslim cab driver who was stabbed by a drunken 21-year-old met with NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg as Hizzoner tries to calm tensions in Gotham.

Western Wall to feature new one-way partition between men, women

JERUSALEM (RNS) Jewish authorities at the Western Wall hope to replace the existing opaque partition that separates the men’s and women’s prayer areas with one that will enable female worshippers to see into the men’s section but not vice-versa. The move follows years of complaints by female worshippers who have been unable to see into the men’s section, even during family bar mitzvahs. Currently, female relatives who want to see a bar mitzvah from the women’s section must stand on plastic chairs and peer over the top of the tall barrier, called a mechitza. Mechitzas exist in all Orthodox synagogues because Jewish law prohibits men and women from praying together. It also prohibits men from seeing women during prayer.

Conservative groups push against hiring rules in federal funding

WASHINGTON (RNS) A coalition of mostly conservative religious organizations is urging Congress to amend a proposed bill that would bar them from making personnel decisions based on religion if they receive government funds to treat mental illness and substance abuse. In a letter sent Wednesday (Aug. 25) to every member of Congress, evangelical charities, the U.S. Catholic Bishops, and Orthodox Jews say the bill “would be catastrophic” to their religious freedom and to their mission to serve the needy. The bill, HR 5466, would reauthorize federal funding to treat substance abuse and mental illness, and was introduced in May by Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., who has battled addiction and bipolar disorder. The bill would outlaw any government funds or contracts with religious organizations that do not agree to “refrain from considering religion or any profession of faith” when making employment decisions.

Irish Catholics deny cover-up of `paramilitary priest’

DUBLIN (RNS/ENInews) The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland has denied engaging in a cover-up of a priest who was allegedly involved in a 1972 bombing that killed nine people in Northern Ireland. A report released Tuesday (Aug. 24) by the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman into a 1972 car bomb said talks between representatives of the government, the police and the church resulted in the transfer of the Rev. James Chesney, a suspect in the bombing, to a parish in Ireland. In a statement, the current head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, and Bishop Seamus Hegarty of Derry accepted the ombudsman’s findings, calling the bombing “an appalling crime.” They added, however, “The Catholic Church did not engage in a cover-up of this matter.”

Poll: Majority opposes mosque near Ground Zero on `sacred ground’

(RNS) The outcry over the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero should not be lumped together with protests against planned mosques in other parts of the country, a new poll suggests. Nearly 60 percent of Americans oppose building an Islamic center or mosque two blocks from the site of the 9/11 terror attacks, but 76 percent would support one in their own communities, according to a PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll released on Thursday (Aug. 26). The strongest opposition to the New York project, called Park51, came from Republicans (85 percent) and white evangelicals (75 percent opposed the New York project, and 24 percent don’t support mosques in their own communities), according to the poll conducted by Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service. The numbers suggest that the negative reaction to what’s been dubbed the “Ground Zero mosque” stems more from its proximity a site that’s considered “sacred ground” by a majority of Americans rather than the general Islamophobia exhibited in the nationwide protests, researchers said.

Thursday’s roundup

More than 70 Christian leaders, including heads of denominations and evangelical heavyweights, say they are “deeply troubled” by the questioning of President Obama’s Christian faith. “We understand that these are contentious times,” the leaders say in an open letter, “but the personal faith of our leaders should not be up for debate.” The GOP is trying to distance itself from the RNC’s new media director, who tweeted that Obama himself might be among the 20 percent of Americans who think he’s Muslim. Glen Beck said Obama is “not a Christian.” Conservatives are trying to stir up controversy about Obama speaking at Xavier University, a Catholic school, at a Katrina memorial on Saturday.

COMMENTARY: Christianity 101

(RNS) The flap about President Obama’s religious affiliation reveals our national ignorance about religion in general and Christianity in particular. Here are some facts we ought to understand about Christianity before we go around rating the Christian character of Obama or anyone else: 1. Much is being made of Obama’s childhood years in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Obama attended a Catholic School and later a public school that he has described as “Muslim” where the Quran was part of the curriculum. Praying to saints in Catholic school didn’t make Obama Catholic; praying with friends inside a mosque didn’t make him a Muslim, either.

Christian counselors claim discrimination over religious beliefs on gays

(RNS) It’s a question being raised by counselors and educators across the country: When are religious views on homosexuality an issue of religious and academic freedom, and when are they discrimination? On Friday (Aug. 20), a federal judge ruled against Jennifer Keeton, a student at Augusta State University who was ordered to either undergo “diversity sensitivity” training after she expressed conservative Christian views on the issue of homosexuality, or leave the school’s counseling program. Her attorneys announced Monday they were appealing the case. In March, a federal judge supported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its dismissal of a Georgia counselor who ended a session with a lesbian client and referred her to another counselor because of her religious views.

Seton Hall to proceed with class on gay marriage

SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. (RNS) It appears Seton Hall University will offer a controversial course on gay marriage over the objections of Newark Archbishop John J. Myers, according to the professor scheduled to teach the class. The undergraduate seminar course — called “The Politics of Gay Marriage” — is to begin Tuesday (Aug. 31) with about two dozen students, said W. King Mott, an associate professor of political science. “The class is happening. I’ve never heard that it wasn’t,” said Mott, who has sent the syllabus to the enrolled students.

Conservative Lutherans to form new church body

(RNS/ENInews) Conservative Lutherans are forming a new church body they say will “uphold confessional principles” after disagreements with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America over the ordination of gay clergy. The new North American Lutheran Church is scheduled to be formed at a meeting Friday and Saturday (Aug. 26-27) in Grove City, Ohio. “The NALC will uphold confessional principles dear to Lutherans, including a commitment to the authority of the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions,” organizers said in a statement. In 2009, after years of contentious debate, the ELCA voted to changes its policies to allow non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy, and to allow churches to bless same-sex relationships.

Scottish church official supports release of Libyan bomber

EDINBURGH, Scotland (RNS/ENInews) The Scottish government was right to show compassion and to release the Libyan man convicted of the 1988 bombing of PanAm flight 103 over Scotland, an official of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland has said. “The principle behind the release of Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi a year ago was right, compassion, and my views haven’t changed,” the Rev. Ian Galloway, the convener of the church’s Church and Society Council, told ENInews. Al-Megrahi was sentenced in 2001 to a minimum of 27 years in prison for the December 1988 bombing, which killed 270 people in the air and on the ground in the Scottish town of Lockerbie. He was released by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds on Aug. 20, 2009 after medical reports suggested he was terminally ill with cancer.

Wednesday’s roundup

Republican leaders say they were just joking when suggesting that President Obama is part of the 20 percent of Americans who believe POTUS is a Muslim; WaPo’s Howard Kurtz wonders if any of this is the media’s fault. Two top Democratic strategists who specialize in religion blame “a widespread and constant misinformation campaign by Fox News and right wing bloggers and radio hosts.” A new poll finds that Americans don’t necessarily think Islam encourages violence, but their views of Islam have worsened in the past five years. The ACLU and others have filed suit against the FBI over allegations of surveillance of Muslims. NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave another impassioned defenseof Park51, the Islamic center near Ground Zero, saying American cannot “compromise our commitment to fighting terror with freedom.” New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan is worried about the tenor of the debate in Gotham. The NYT says the area near Park51 was once known as Little Syria.

Presbyterian minister faces church trial on gay weddings

(RNS) For the second time in two years, the Rev. Jane Spahr is on trial in the Presbyterian Church (USA) for performing same-sex weddings. A retired pastor and self-described “lesbian evangelist,” Spahr, 68, was acquitted of similar charges by the denomination’s high court in 2008. The same-sex ceremony she had presided over in 2006 was not really a “marriage” since neither church nor state recognized it as such, the court ruled. Months after that ruling, Spahr again wed a same-sex couple. This time, however, same-sex marriage was legal in California.

Documentary unearths forgotten Nazi footage

(RNS) Perhaps the most chilling detail of the Third Reich is the precision with which it documented its own atrocities. The timetables of trains to the death camps, the blueprints for the gas chambers, the long lists of names and numbers and ethnicities. This many arrested, this many transported, this many eliminated. And in that precision, you hear a sick pride. Because, who else could have conceived of such an ambitious solution?