Criminals offered choice of time in pews or the pokey

BAY MINETTE, Ala. (RNS) A new alternative sentencing program that offers first-time, nonviolent offenders a choice of a year in church or jail time and fines is drawing national attention, including fire from the American Civil Liberties Union. “This policy is blatantly unconstitutional,” said Olivia Turner, executive director for the ACLU of Alabama. “It violates one basic tenet of the Constitution, namely that government can’t force participation in religious activity.” But the local police chief who is heading up the week-old “Operation Restore Our Community” says no one is being forced to participate.

Best-selling pastor is off to L.A. to write more books

GRANDVILLE, Mich. (RNS) Megachurch pastor Rob Bell, whose best-selling book raised evangelical eyebrows by questioning traditional beliefs on hell, knew it was time to address the “giant, glowing, loud” elephant in the room on Sunday (Sept. 25) morning. What’s going to happen to Mars Hill Bible Church, his flock wanted to know, after their charismatic “rock star” pastor is no longer delivering sermons every Sunday? “You’re going to be great,” Bell assured his anxious flock multiple times, sounding almost like a man in the midst of a romantic breakup.

Amnesty International slams Irish Catholic Church on abuse

VATICAN CITY (RNS) A new report by the Irish branch of Amnesty International says the sexual abuse of children by Ireland’s Roman Catholic priests “included acts that amounted to torture and inhuman and degrading treatment.” The 430-page report, released Monday (Sept. 26), “reminds us that Irish children were subjected to treatment that would be horrifying if it were done to prisoners of war, never mind little boys and girls,” said Ireland’s Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald, in Dublin. The study is a response to four major government probes of clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church conducted since 2003. Those investigations revealed widespread child abuse over several decades by clergy and members of religious orders, leading to the resignations of three bishops.

Muslim students vow appeal in free speech conviction

LOS ANGELES (RNS) A group of Muslim students who were convicted Friday (Sept. 23) of disrupting a speech by the Israeli ambassador plan to appeal as Muslim community leaders call the high-profile free speech case a civil rights moment. The “Irvine 11” were charged with systematically heckling Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren during a speech to about 500 people last year at the University of California, Irvine. “We’ll be filing the notice of appeal within 30 days of the verdict,” attorney Reem Salahi said Monday. “Obviously there’s issues that came up in the trial that we’d like to appeal.

Monday’s Religion News Roundup

Less than a week after the controversial execution of Troy Davis, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told Duquesne University law students that if he thought the death penalty was immoral under Catholic doctrine, he would resign immediately. For the record, here’s what the Catholic Catechism says about the death penalty: “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity `are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'” Sticking with the theme of death and dying, the Dalai Lama says he plans to live until he’s 90 and will leave detailed instructions for finding his reincarnation. China reiterated that it will choose the next Dalai Lama and two Tibetan monks set themselves on fire in protest. Pope Benedict XVI concluded his trip to his native Germany by urging Catholics to close ranks behind him rather than demand reforms or leave the Church. On Saturday a man fired an air gun at a security guard about an hour before a papal Mass.

Synagogues adjust ticket policies for High Holy Days

(RNS) The sputtering economy is fueling changes in synagogues’ ticketing policies and marketing strategies for their annual High Holy Days services. Synagogues typically require annual memberships or a fee to attend services over the High Holy Days, which start Wednesday (Sept. 28) with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and continue through the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on Oct. 8. But this year, some Jewish communities are trying new approaches to bring in financially distressed Jews and those who feel little connection to Jewish life.

Our Present Crucible

Saturday night my wife and I went to see the Hartford Stage’s terrific production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and it was hard not to come away without pondering the play’s relevance for America today. When it was first produced in 1953, The Crucible struck unimpressed reviewers as little more than a straight-up allegory of their own era, with the Salem witch trials standing in for McCarthyite attacks on the loyalty of upstanding Americans. As Miller noted In a 1996 New Yorker piece, “Why I Wrote ‘The Crucible'”:Inevitably, it was no sooner known that my new play was about Salem than
I had to confront the charge that such an analogy was specious–that
there never were any witches but there certainly are Communists.We, however, live in a time when a candidate for the U.S. Senate airs an ad denying she is a witch and a candidate for the vice presidency of the United States appears on video being prayed over by a preacher asking God to protect her from witchcraft–both in the context of a generation in which partisan politics has increasingly taken on the aspect of spiritual warfare. With the existence of witches and Communists equally plausible (or implausible), the world of Salem that The Crucible conjures up has become less alien, its actual religiosity more real. Miller, who spent weeks in the Salem courthouse studying the judicial record of the trials, ends his piece by puzzling over what was taken to be the “crucial damning event” for an accused witch–signing one’s name in the Devil’s Book:But what were these new inductees supposed to have done once they’d signed on?

Rob Bell isn’t first megachurch pastor to seek life beyond the pulpit

(RNS) For pastors with ambitions to reach huge audiences, there’s often no better platform than the megachurch, which has given rise to powerhouse media empires from T.D. Jakes to Max Lucado to Joel Osteen and many others. But some high-profile pastors are opting to leave congregational ministry altogether to pursue publishing and other media ventures full time. And that, some observers say, carries its own risks and rewards. On Thursday (Sept. 22), up-and-coming pastor Rob Bell announced he’s leaving Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich.

Catholic anti-abortion group in financial trouble

(RNS) A leading Catholic anti-abortion group whose leader is under scrutiny for failing to disclose financial details reported a $1.4 million deficit in 2010 despite collecting tens of millions of dollars in donations during recent years. The budget shortfall at Priests For Life and a bishop’s recent decision to sharply curtail its national director’s activities raise serious questions about the group’s long-term viability. The controversy could also affect the ability of the Catholic Church and the wider anti-abortion movement to press their signature political issue during the coming campaign season. Founded in 1991, Priests For Life is led by the Rev. Frank Pavone, a New York-born priest known for his political activism and sometimes strident anti-abortion advocacy. Earlier this month, Bishop Patrick Zurek ordered Pavone to return to Amarillo, Texas, where the priest is officially based, saying Pavone had failed to answer questions about Priests For Life’s finances.

Pope seeks Protestant allies to combat secularism

BERLIN (RNS) All faiths have to work together to stanch the tide of secularism sweeping the world, warned Pope Benedict XVI on Friday (Sept. 23) during the second day of a tour through his native Germany. Benedict focused Friday on ecumenical meetings, including a service with Lutheran ministers in the city of Erfurt, where Protestant Reformer Martin Luther began to harbor his first doubts about Catholicism. “The most urgent thing for ecumenicalism is, namely, that we can’t allow the push of secularism to force us, almost without noticing, to lose sight of the major similarities that make us Christians, and which remain a gift and a challenge for us,” the pope said. The message in Germany, home to many Lutherans, was warmly received, though newspaper commentators said they had hoped for more concrete steps toward reconciliation, rather than just an exchange of ideas.

Friday Godbytes

Southerners have been debating it for years: is mustard based superior to catsup based? (of course not) Is vinegar based the grandest of them all? (clearly, no) That’s right – we’re talking about barbecue. And not your silly Northeast “barbecue” (if you’re just cooking burgers, ladies and gentlemen, that is properly referred to as a cookout) – we’re talking real, honest-to-goodness barbecue, with sauce and everything. Well now it looks like Tennesseans can add a new brand of barbecue to their list: kosher.

Friday’s Religion News Roundup

So much for a quiet slide into the weekend … Michigan megachurch pastor Rob Bell is stepping down from his pulpit, though it’s a little unclear how much his “I’m not really sure about hell” book has to do with it. The official announcement from Mars Hill Church is here. That’s him, by the way, at left. The National Organization for Marriage has a new chairman, culture wars veteran John Eastman.

Judaism without God? Yes, say American atheists

BERKELEY, Calif. (RNS) For an atheist, Maxim Schrogin talks about God a lot. Over lunch at a Jewish deli, he ponders the impulse to believe — does it come from within or without? Why does God permit suffering? Finally, he pulls out a flowchart he made showing degrees of belief, which ranges from unquestioning faith to absolute atheism.

Social Issues in Orlando

Fox’s Megyn Kelly was last night’s designated social issues questioner, and she directed herself to the middle of the field (transcript after the jump).First up was Michele Bachmann, who got to explain her statement that church-state separation is a “myth.” Backing off the myth thing, Bachmann took refuge in the standard conservative meme that the Establishment Clause merely bans a national state church: “That’s really what the fundamental was of separation of church and
state.” Then, typically, she botched her history, contending that it was about a national church that those Danbury Baptists were concerned when they wrote to President Jefferson (drawing his famous response about the wall of separation). In fact, the Baptists wanted Jefferson’s moral support in their campaign to undo the the Standing Order–religious establishment–of Connecticut.Next up was Rick Santorum, on whom Kelly laid the video clip of a gay soldier in Iraq who wanted to know whether the candidates intended “to
circumvent the progress that’s been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in
the military?” The booing that ensured from the audience was this debate’s ugly moment, and it may have put the usually glib Santorum off his feed.