Coalition works to protect religious employees

WASHINGTON (RNS) A coalition of religious and civil liberty groups is pushing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to stop employers from segregating “visibly religious employees from customers and the general public.” In a March 25 letter submitted to the EEOC, the groups asked the agency to “exercise its regulatory authority” and enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on religion. The organizations are concerned that adherence to religious dress can cause segregation for employees, citing examples of a Muslim woman in a headscarf or a Sikh man in a turban, where courts ruled for employers who segregated those employees for their attire. “We are troubled by these misinterpretations and the discriminatory impact they have on individuals whose religious observance encompasses adherence to dress and grooming requirements,” the letter said. The 25 co-signers, including the Interfaith Alliance, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, presented three ways for the EEOC to be more aggressive in enforcement.

Supreme Court to weigh churches’ employment rights

WASHINGTON (RNS) The Supreme Court agreed Monday (March 28) to consider whether a teacher who was fired from a religious school is subject to a “ministerial exception” that can bar suits against religious organizations. The case involves an employment dispute between a Michigan school and a teacher who is defended by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Lawyers for the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Mich., argue that courts have long recognized the First Amendment doctrine that often prevents employees who perform religious functions from suing religious organizations. They asked the court to determine whether it extends to teachers at a religious school who teach a secular curriculum but also teach religion classes and lead students in prayer. A lower court sided with the school and against fired teacher Cheryl Perich, citing the ministerial exception.

COMMENTARY: Discipline and diversion

(RNS) Saturday’s Gospel Choir performance turned on whether we were disciplined or diverted. If we were disciplined, we would watch the director closely, get our dynamics just right, make our cutoffs crisply, and perform admirably. Yet by allowing ourselves to be diverted just a bit, we made glorious music. We focused on that middle space where God resides. Like other singers in this Gospel Festival, we felt the driving beat and heard the words.

Tuesday’s Religion News Roundup

A suit filed in Chicago yesterday accuses the Jesuits of “reckless disregard” for the well-being of children around an 80-year-old priest who’s now serving a 25-year sentence; this is, of course, on top of the massive $166 million case that Jesuits in the Northwest settled yesterday, and the Seattle Times says true justice for abuse victims will only be found in criminal courts. Meanwhile, a former top church official in Boston has asked the state attorney general to wade into a bitter dispute over unfunded employee pension plans — the same program he defended six years ago. A new judge in Texas has backed off a plan to allow offenders to read a Christian book and then come back and discuss it with him in lieu of jail time. A Catholic priest in Arkansas lost his visiting rights after he was caught trying to smuggle tobacco to a death row inmate. The Cato Institute’s Doug Bandow finds the whole “What Would Jesus Cut?”

Mouth of Newt

In his 12th-century chronicle, The Two Cities, Bishop Otto of Freising retells the story of Bishop Tiemo of Salzburg, who as prisoner of the Emir of Memphis in 1100 was said to have broken to pieces idols that he’d been ordered to worship and was tortured to death for his pains. Otto, who had gotten a good Parisian education, knew better: “That [Tiemo] suffered for his faith in Christ a most reliable tradition affirms, but that he demolished idols is difficult to believe because, as is well known, the Saracens universally are worshipers of one God.”By contrast, Newt Gingrich, who got his PhD in modern European history from Tulane, on Monday told the folks at John Hagee’s church in San Antonio, “I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the
nature of America, by the time they’re my age they will be in a secular
atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with
no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.” OK, so maybe, as his spokesman tried to claim, Newt misspoke, and instead of suggesting that radical Islamists are secular atheists meant to place an “or” before “potentially.” The fact is that he has gone so far off the rhetorical deep end that he has even conservative columnists like Jeff Jacoby scratching their heads. His potential presidential bid is rapidly turning into its own no-fly zone.

Obama’s Just War

Pastor Dan tweets: “Interesting. Obama engages just-war thought in re: Libya, where Augustine, the originator of the tradition, lived and died (in a war).” Well, pretty close. Augustine was Bishop of Hippo, now called Annaba, in Algeria near the Tunisian border, and there he died in 430 during the Vandals’ siege. While the just war tradition goes back at least to Cicero, he was a key figure in its development.

Supporters march to keep paddling at Catholic school

NEW ORLEANS (RNS) More than 500 students, parents and other supporters of St. Augustine High School marched Saturday (March 26) on the offices of Archbishop Gregory Aymond to oppose his call for an end to the school’s policy of using corporal punishment. The archbishop “is trying to fix something that’s not broken, and he’s going about it in the wrong way,” said Jacob Washington, the student body president at the historically black school. The protesters called on the archbishop to issue a “public, unequivocal retraction … of all statements linking St.

Pope calls for Libyan cease-fire

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Benedict XVI is calling for an immediate cease-fire and peace negotiations in Libya, where U.S. and allied European forces have been targeting military assets controlled by the country’s dictator, Col. Moammar Gadhafi. Benedict made his statement on Sunday (March 28), following his weekly recitation of the Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square, saying he was “progressively more concerned about the well-being and safety of civilians” in Libya. “I make a heartfelt appeal to international organizations and to political and military leaders for the immediate launch of a dialogue that will halt the use of arms,” the pope said.

Bishops push back on allowing gay couples in housing

WASHINGTON (RNS) U.S. Catholic bishops are urging federal housing officials not to adopt proposed rules that would bar groups that receive federal funds from discriminating against gays, lesbians or transgender persons in housing programs. The Department of Housing and Urban Development said the new rules, proposed on Jan. 24, would “ensure equal access” to programs that help the elderly, sick, and impoverished find stable housing. Citing recent studies, HUD said gays and lesbians face discrimination in the private housing market, and one in five transgender persons reports homelessness due to bias. “In considering the mounting evidence of violence and discrimination against LGBT persons, the department is concerned that its own programs may not be fully open to LGBT individuals and families,” HUD said in January. Lawyers for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops say the new rules would force some religious groups to compromise their beliefs or quit HUD housing programs. “Faith-based and other organizations should retain the freedom they have always had to make housing placements in a manner consistent with their religious beliefs, including when it concerns a cohabiting couple, be it an unmarried heterosexual couple or a homosexual couple,” said Anthony Picarello and Michael Moses, lawyers for the bishops conference.

GUEST COMMENTARY: Is this about American Muslims, or America?

(RNS) Lately, Congress appears to be obsessed with Muslims. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is holding hearings Tuesday (March 29) on “Protecting the Civil Rights of American Muslims,” and Chairman Peter King has announced a second set of hearings on “Radicalization in the American Muslim Community” in the House Homeland Security Committee, this set focusing on radicalization in prisons. Although the word “Muslim” is the one getting the most media play, I believe these hearings are really about America, and whether we value the contributions of, and cooperation between, our many different communities. Our founding fathers were emphatic on where they stood. When George Washington was asked about his preferred workers at Mount Vernon, he replied: “If they are good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa or Europe; they may be Mahometans (Muslims), Jews, Christians of any sect, or they may be atheists.” For Washington, it wasn’t just about the principle of freedom, but the practicality that in a diverse nation, bigotry toward any community not only hurts that group, but weakens the nation.

More U.S. colleges adding Muslim chaplains

ITHACA, N.Y. (RNS) When Jainal Bhuiyan attended Cornell University, he and his fellow Muslim students were mentored and led in religious prayers by a collection of Muslim professors, graduate students and staff. “That was our network that filled the void,” said Bhuiyan, 28, and now senior vice president at the New York investment bank Rodman & Renshaw. Cornell soon could join the growing ranks of universities with full-time Muslim chaplains working alongside the Christian and Jewish chaplains already common on college campuses. Bhuiyan and other Muslim alumni have created the Diwan Foundation, which launched last month to raise money to establish such a position at Cornell. “We’re not thinking of this as trying to address a major deficiency, but rather a natural evolution,” said Nadeem Shafi, a Cornell alumnus who is an assistant professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine.

Monday’s Religion News Roundup

As Japan tries to plug its leaking nuclear reactor, some Japanese have a different dilemma. The death toll from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami – tallied at 10,800 and climbing – exceeds the capacity of crematoriums in the hard-hit coastal regions, where burials are substituting for Buddhist-rooted cremation rituals. Moving from one crisis to another, the U.S. Catholic Bishops issued a reminder of Just War criteria as the Libyan bombing campaign continues. The bishops did not say whether the anti-Ghaddaffi strikes meet the criteria. Pope Benedict XVI called for all sides to suspend the use of arms and pursue peaceful dialogue.

USCCB speaks

Honor obliges that I note that last Friday, the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops finally did acknowledge the eruption of scandal in Philadelphia, in the form of a statement from its Administrative Committee, conveyed over the signature of its president, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan. As Grant Gallicho points out over at dotCommonweal, the statement does not actually name its raison d’ê





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tre, “Philadelphia.” What it does is offer reassurance that the USCCB’s Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, adopted in Dallas in 2002, “remains strongly in place.” Except, of course, in Philadelphia, where the charter was, as they say, honored in the breach. The Administrative Committee, which speaks for the USCCB when the USCCB is not in session, indicated a collective desire to “strengthen” the Charter “even more” when it conducts a “long planned review” of the thing at the USCCB’s regular meeting in June.

Shores of Tripoli

Call me a naive religion prof., but while I was strolling among the shore birds on the Redneck Riviera, it appears as though President Obama’s little Libya gamble has been working out pretty well. He got his U.N. resolution, turned the tide of battle, achieved both tacit and active support from Arab governments, kept his coalition together, got NATO to take charge, and has the U.S. being cheered by one Arab street as all other Arab streets watch it on Al Jazeera. Oh, yes, and at the beginning of his reelection campaign has made the Republican opposition look like a bunch of anxious old maids. Not bad for a feckless law prof.Sure, extruding Qaddafi from Tripoli may prove difficult and time-consuming. Only if you confine your military adventures to the likes of Granada and Panama (Lebanon, whoops!), can you be sure of the quick and easy.

UN passes religious freedom resolution

WASHINGTON (RNS) U.S. officials praised a United Nations council for a new statement on religious freedom that sidestepped a divisive debate sponsored by Islamic countries over the “defamation of religions.” The U.N. Human Rights Council on Thursday (March 24) approved a resolution voicing concern on “emerging obstacles” to religious freedom and growing “religious intolerance, discrimination and violence.” The United States supported the resolution, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called a “significant step forward” in global efforts to combat “intolerance, discrimination and violence … based upon religion or belief.” Annual U.N. resolutions sponsored by the Organization of the Islamic Conference against the “defamation of religions” have steadily lost support in recent years.