10 minutes with … Thomas Blackshear

(RNS) Thirteen years after her death and just days after what would have been her 100th birthday, the U.S. Postal Service will issue a special stamp on Sept. 5 to commemorate the remarkable life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The stamp, like Mother Teresa herself, hasn’t been without controversy. Atheist groups, including the Freedom from Religion Foundation, complained about a religious figure being featured on a stamp. Postal officials said she was chosen for her humanitarian work, not her religious affiliation.

COMMENTARY: The mirror has two faces

(RNS) Six years ago, I sat down with a young Illinois state senator for a lengthy interview about his faith. At the time, the fresh-faced politician with an unusual name was still toiling in relative obscurity in Chicago. When my “spiritual profile” of Barack Obama ran in the Chicago Sun-Times, it was greeted with modest interest, mostly for the novelty of a Democratic candidate speaking at length about religion. That all changed a few months later, when Obama, by then a candidate for the U.S. Senate, delivered an electrifying keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention and began an international meteoric rise. Ever since Obama’s keynote address, scarcely a day has gone by when I haven’t received at least a couple of e-mails from curious readers asking about my interview with Obama.

Conservatives claim victory as judge halts stem cell funding

WASHINGTON (RNS) Conservative Christian groups won a major victory Monday (Aug. 23) when a Washington judge halted federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to allow a suit challenging the practice as illegal to go forward. The suit, by a group of doctors and Nightlight Christian Adoptions, says federal funding of embryonic stem cells limits the number of fertilized embryos the agency can make available to couples seeking to “adopt” them from fertility clinics. The suit also says the practice violates a 1996 law prohibiting federal funding for research in which embryos are “destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death.” President Obama lifted restrictions on federal funding in March 2009, and the National Institutes of Health issued ethical guidelines for the research four months later.

… and I’m an (ex-) Mormon

You may have seen those “…and I’m a Mormon” ads from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, trying to knock down stereotypes about clean-cut blond-hair blue-eyed Mormons. Now Chad Hardy, the guy behind those “Men on a Mission” and “Mormon Muffins” calendars, has a video of his own, and it’s not exactly what the folks in Salt Lake City had in mind:

WCC to meet in Cleveland to tackle racism

CLEVELAND (RNS) Members of the World Council of Churches, representing more than 560 million Christians in 110 countries, will gather in Cleveland to discuss how to expose and combat racism around the globe. The four-day seminar, which starts Thursday (Aug. 26) and will include about 30 people from churches around the world, will be hosted by the Cleveland-based United Church of Christ. “We’ll review what’s going on throughout the world,” said the Rev. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister of the UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries. “We need to address the underground, systemic issues of racism.”

World Vision wins right to hire, fire based on religion

(RNS) World Vision, the Christian humanitarian organization, can fire employees who disagree with its theological tenets, a federal appeals court ruled on Monday (Aug. 23). In a 2-1 decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that World Vision is a “religious corporation” and therefore exempt from a federal law that bars faith-based discrimination. “I am satisfied that World Vision has met its burden of showing that the `general picture’ of the organization is `primarily religious,”‘ wrote Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain. “World Vision is a nonprofit organization whose humanitarian relief efforts flow from a profound sense of religious mission.”‘ Three employees, two of whom had worked at World Vision for 10 years, were fired in 2006 because they did not believe in the divinity of Jesus or the doctrine of the Trinity, O’Scannlain wrote.

COMMENTARY: Laying it all out on the table

(RNS) Political discourse reached a new low after evangelist Franklin Graham insinuated that President Obama is a closet Muslim because his father had once been a Muslim. Religious identity is genetic, he seemed to say. Forget the conversion of Saul, the impact of Peter’s preaching after Pentecost, or the souls who knelt before Franklin’s father, Billy Graham, seeking new life. Obama’s profession of Christian faith apparently accounts for nothing. When you’re trying to bring down a president, any nonsense goes.

Nation’s first Muslim college opens in California

BERKELEY, Calif. (RNS) Faatimah Knight’s college decision came down to eight schools where she would have majored in English, or Zaytuna College, where she could study Islamic classical teachings in an environment that embraces all aspects of her Muslim faith. The Brooklyn native is part of the inaugural class of what Zaytuna’s founders hope will be the country’s first accredited, four-year Muslim liberal arts college — a flagship of higher learning with an Islamic identity yet open to all faiths. Knight, 18, chose Zaytuna, she said, because she wants to grow in her faith, learn more about the religion that inspired her parents to convert from Christianity and be able to defend Islam during a time of stepped-up suspicion. Four years of college, Knight said, “has to bring me more than book smarts.”

Tuesday’s roundup

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, on the first stop of his 15-nation goodwill tour though Muslim nations, spoke expansively about religious law and Islam, but had little to say about the controversy surrounding his plans to build an Islamic center and mosque two blocks north of Ground Zero in NYC. A Bahraini man asked Rauf, “Why don’t we just change the place, to show that Islam is not there to threaten everybody, that Islam is a religion of peace?” To which Rauf responded, “The opposition to us has come from outside the community. The fact that there has been this misunderstanding shows the need for the project.” The AP finds that Muslims in the Middle East are pretty indifferent to all the Park51 hubub.

Pope chides France after Gypsies are deported

VATICAN CITY (RNS) In an apparent criticism of France’s mass deportation of Roma (Gypsy) immigrants, Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday (Aug. 22) urged French-speaking Catholics to “accept legitimate human diversity” and practice “universal fraternity.” The pope made his remarks, which did not explicitly refer to the French policy, following his weekly Angelus prayer at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo outside Rome. Addressing “Francophone pilgrims” in their native language, Benedict noted the biblical teaching that “all men are called to salvation,” and invited his listeners to “welcome legitimate human diversity, following Jesus who came to gather together men of every nation and every tongue.” “Dear parents, you can educate your children in universal fraternity,” the pope said.

Another couple faces charges in child’s faith-healing death

OREGON CITY, Ore. (RNS) Another couple will face charges of second-degree manslaughter in the death of their newborn son, the third such fatality in two years involving the Followers of Christ church, which shuns modern medicine. Dale R. Hickman and Shannon M. Hickman, both 25, are scheduled to be formally charged on Aug. 30 after their arrest on July 30. Both are currently free on bail.

Boston archdiocese blocks employee access to critical blog

(RNS) The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has blocked a conservative website from employees’ computers, saying the anonymous bloggers, who have sharply criticized archdiocesan leaders, were causing a distraction. Archdiocesan spokesman Terrence C. Donilon told the Boston Globe that bloggers from “Boston Catholic Insider” had been “spamming” employees by sending links to the website and “interfering with their work day.” “Cardinal O’Malley and his staff are dedicated to building unity in Christ and Christian community within the archdiocese,” Donilon said in a statement. “We are concerned about the harm caused to individuals and to the community by anonymous and unfounded claims on the blogs.” An open, but unsigned letter from the bloggers to Cardinal Sean O’Malley and other Boston Catholic leaders was posted on Monday (Aug.

Monday’s roundup

About 500 opponents and 200 supporters of the so-called “Ground Zero mosque” protested in NYC on Sunday. Though the rhetoric was heated, the biggest problem was the rain, said a police spokesman. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who is on a 15-national State Department-sponsored tour of the Middle East to promote religious tolerance, said all the attention generated by the project is a good thing. His wife and co-organizer of Park51, Daisy Khan, said she may be open to moving the planned Islamic Cultural Center and mosque further away from Ground Zero and that opposition to the project “is like metastasized anti-Semitism.” Both the WaPo and the NYT devote some serious ink to Rauf, including an extensive look at what he has said about Islam-inspired terrorism.

Future of destroyed Ground Zero Orthodox church in doubt

NEW YORK (RNS) Buried by falling rubble from the World Trade Center towers after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, all that remained of the tiny St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church were some candles, two icons and a bell clapper. These salvaged artifacts are being kept at the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America while the church’s 70 member families worship at a cathedral in Brooklyn, praying for the day they can return to a new sanctuary in lower Manhattan. “Everything has been incredibly slow and incredibly frustrating, but until the spring of 2009, everything at Ground Zero was going slowly, not just us,” said John Couloucoundis, the president of the St. Nicholas parish council.

Legal group: Ruling could prompt more suits against highway crosses

WASHINGTON (RNS) An appeals court ruling that said highway crosses erected to honor fallen Utah state troopers are unconstitutional could prompt additional challenges in other states, legal experts said. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday (Aug. 18) that the 12-foot crosses violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits government endorsement of religion. “We hold that these memorials have the impermissible effect of conveying to the reasonable observer the message that the state prefers or otherwise endorses a certain religion,” the court ruled, overturning a lower court decision. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which argued in favor of the crosses on behalf of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, said the case could have repercussions beyond Utah.