Update: Fla. pastor formally banned from U.K.

LONDON (RNS) A Florida pastor who sparked fury when he threatened to burn a pile of Qurans on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has been officially banned from Britain for preaching religious extremism. The British government announced Thursday (Jan. 20) that it had issued the exclusion order against Pastor Terry Jones, who had been invited to address an anti-Islam demonstration in February. The Gainesville preacher triggered uproar last September when he announced plans to burn copies of the Quran; he later withdrew the threat, but that didn’t result in a change of course for the British government. “The government opposes extremism in all its forms,” Britain’s Home Office said, “which is why we have excluded Pastor Terry Jones from the U.K.”

Americans give poor marks to the state of our moral union

(RNS) As President Obama prepared to assess the state of the union, three out of four Americans grade the country’s moral climate at a “C” or below, according to a new poll released on Jan. 20. The PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll found that Americans cite partisan noise from cable, talk radio, blogs and the Tea Party as the main stumbling blocks to working across partisan lines. At the same time, half of Americans* say the nation’s harsh political rhetoric bears at least some responsibility for the shooting spree in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six and left a Democratic congresswoman gravely injured. And despite popular assumptions that faith can fuel bitter polarization between Americans, just one in seven respondents say religious leaders from the left or right are major obstacle to changing the tone in Washington.

After Election Day fire, church sees glimmers of hope in rebuilding

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (RNS) There is a roof, four walls, windows and doors, and a concrete floor. Eventually all the ornamentation and decor will be in place, but for now the interior of the rebuilt Macedonia Church of God in Christ is a maze of 2-by-4 frames and exposed electrical wires. Workers are pounding nails, hanging insulation and hauling in supplies. Sitting on a picnic table in the middle of the concrete floor and tucking his hands inside his coat for warmth, Bishop Bryant Robinson Jr. said he is able to see to the end of a four-year journey that has seen its share of Job-like trials along the way.

COMMENTARY: Is religion making a comeback?

(RNS) Is religion the new comeback kid? Since the 1960s my work has involved understanding faith and culture and interpreting each for the other. If there is one consistent theme over those years, it has been that most Americans are very comfortable describing themselves as “spiritual,” but definitely do not want to be described as “religious.” I’ve always been — and remain — fascinated with America’s spiritual quest, which today is often unlinked from organized religion. There’s a vibrant ongoing conversation about “ideas that matter” and belief within pop culture, movies, books, theater and music.

Thursday’s Religion News Roundup

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley apologized “if I offended anyone in any way” after he said non-Christians are “not my brothers and sisters” just hours after taking the oath of office. President Obama rolled out the red carpet for Chinese President Hu Jintao at an official State Dinner last night, but only after Hu admitted “a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights,” with the caveat that “we also need to take into account the different and national circumstances when it comes to the universal value of human rights.” WaPo probes the growing divide between Catholic hospitals and the Catholic hierarchy over who gets to call the shots in the O.R.; opponents are mobilizing just outside D.C. to keep a Catholic hospital from expanding because of its restrictions on reproductive health options. Gay rights groups call a new 12-step program for gays in the Diocese of Colorado Springs “snake-oil therapy.” From the Dept.

My brothers, my sisters

“All men are brothers” is an assertion of our common humanity. So it seemed like a rejection of it for Alabama’s newly elected governor to restrict his own brotherhood to fellow Christians–or, more accurately, to fellow evangelicals. When you say, as Gov. Robert Bentley did, “Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother,” you’re talking the evangelical talk.Now if Bentley had just said, “…you’re not my brother in Christ and you’re not my sister in Christ, and I want to be your brother in Christ,” it would have been a bit redundant, but innocuous. No Jew or Muslim wants to be someone’s brother (or sister) in Christ.So why was Bentley denying the common humanity of his non-Christian brethren and sistren? He wasn’t.

Ala. governor off to `rocky start’ with Jews, Muslims

(RNS) Jewish and Muslim groups want to know if they have a place in Alabama after Gov. Robert Bentley, just hours into office, said people who have not accepted Jesus as their savior are not his “brothers and sisters.” “Gov. Bentley certainly has a right to believe whatever he wants to believe religiously, and should be admired for his deep faith and convictions,” said Richard Friedman, executive director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation. “However, when elected officials make such religious remarks in their public roles, their comments tend to disenfranchise citizens who don’t share those beliefs.” Bentley, a Republican who was inaugurated Monday (Jan. 17), told a large crowd at the Rev. Martin Luther King’s former Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church that he intends to be “governor of all the people.

Vatican tries to tamp down abuse letter to Irish bishops

VATICAN CITY (RNS) The Vatican on Wednesday (Jan. 19) tried to tamp down allegations a controversial 1997 letter to Irish bishops was meant to discourage prelates from reporting sexual abuse cases to police or prosecutors. The Vatican’s top spokesman said the letter from the Vatican’s ambassador to Ireland was meant to ensure the application of the Catholic Church’s internal disciplinary procedures against pedophile priests. The letter, signed by Archbishop Luciano Storero, was made public for the first time on Monday (Jan. 17) in a television documentary broadcast on the Irish network RTE.

Catholic bishops won’t support repeal of health care law

WASHINGTON(RNS) The U.S. Catholic bishops will not join efforts to repeal the new health care law, even though they staunchly opposed the bill last year after concluding it permits federally funded abortions. Instead of pushing repeal, the bishops said Tuesday (Jan. 18) they will devote their energy “to correcting serious moral problems in the current law,” according to a letter sent to Capitol Hill from Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Bishop Stephen Blaire, and Archbishop Jose Gomez, who all chair political committees at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the USCCB, echoed that message in a separate letter to all 535 members of Congress outlining the bishops’ top political priorities. By not supporting House Republicans’ campaign to repeal the health care law, the bishops averted another clash with Catholic health care workers and nuns, who had bucked the hierarchy last year by publicly backing the bill.

Update: Innkeepers found guilty for turning away gay couple

LONDON (RNS) Two Christian innkeepers have been convicted of sexual discrimination for refusing to allow a gay couple to share a double room at their hotel in Cornwall, England. Peter and Hazelmary Bull also were ordered by the Bristol County court to pay 3,600 pounds (about $5,700) for turning civil partners Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy away from their bed and breakfast. The hoteliers had argued they were trying “to live and work in accordance with our Christian faith” when they refused to let the two men share a bed. “Our double-bed policy was based on our sincere beliefs about marriage, not hostility to anybody,” Hazelmary Bull told the court. She insisted the policy “was applied equally and consistently to unmarried heterosexual couples and homosexual couples.”

Wednesday’s Religion News Roundup

As the House prepares to vote today on repealing last year’s health care law, religious groups are signing petitions and rallying to support/oppose the mammoth legislation. The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, wrote Congress a long letter outlining the bishops’ priorities, but didn’t take a position on the repeal. Tribune’s Washington bureau tick-tocks President Obama’s Arizona speech and finds he relied on help from pastors and Scripture. Before Obama’s next big speech – the State of the Union address on Jan. 25 – the National Council of Churches wants the president to remember his pledge to cut poverty in half.

Muslim countries cited on religious freedom

WASHINGTON (RNS) The New Year’s Day massacre at a Coptic church in Egypt. Christian converts facing the death penalty in Afghanistan. Swastikas painted on a Jewish synagogue in Venezuela. As the headlines deliver fresh stories of the persecution of the faithful, two recent reports by watchdog groups and a new book take a fresh look at the persistence of religious intolerance worldwide, with Muslim-majority nations facing particular criticism. “Religious persecution is not only more prevalent among Muslim-majority countries, but it also generally occurs at more severe levels,” Roger Finke and Brian J. Grim write in their new book “The Price of Freedom Denied,” published by Cambridge University Press.

10 Minutes with … Jay Bakker

(RNS) When Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL ministry and Heritage USA theme park crashed and burned in the 1980s, their son Jay was sent into a dizzying downward spiral of drugs, alcohol and running from God. Now the pastor of an alternative church in Brooklyn, N.Y., Jay Bakker’s new book, “Fall to Grace” probes the power of God’s grace to “revolutionize” believers’ relationships with God, each other and larger society. Most provocatively, Bakker makes the case that homosexuality is neither a sin nor incompatible with an authentic and robust life of faith. Bakker, 35 and sober, spoke by phone from his home in Brooklyn. Some answers have been edited for clarity and length.

COMMENTARY: Faith, family and failure

(RNS) As HBO’s “Big Love” heads into its fifth and final season, series creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer are turning their attention back to the bread-and-butter themes that have made their show so compelling: faith and family. Gone are the non sequitur plot turns of last year’s frenetic season (that included, improbably, black market parrot trading, eugenics, and Native American casino gambling). The soul of “Big Love” has always dwelled in the living room(s) of the fictional Henrickson family, composed of a husband, three wives and too many children to count. While the show is “about” a modern-day polygamist Mormon family in Utah, it is really about something much more universal. Once you get past the sexual and emotional complexities of the Henricksons’ unconventional living arrangements, what remains is a sensitive and articulate portrayal of the nature of belief.

Ala. governor says only Christians are his `brothers and sisters’

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (RNS) Newly sworn-in Gov. Robert Bentley said he plans to be the governor of all Alabamians and be color-blind, but also said that people who aren’t “saved” Christians aren’t his brothers and sisters. Bentley told a large crowd on Monday (Jan. 17) at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church that he believed it was important for Alabamians “that we love and care for each other.” “I was elected as a Republican candidate.