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c. 1999 Religion News Service

Relatives of Columbine students sue over religious expression

(RNS) Relatives of students killed in the April shooting at Columbine High School have sued the Jefferson County School District in Colorado, claiming they were not allowed to use religious themes in a display of memorial tiles in the school’s hallways.

The Rutherford Institute, a conservative civil liberties organization based in Charlottesville, Va., is representing the relatives. The suit, filed Monday (Oct. 4), seeks damages because they believe the school has violated their First Amendment rights of freedom of religious expression and free speech.”In the midst of extreme suffering and grief, the school district’s hostility to the religious beliefs that have sustained these families is disturbing,”said John W. Whitehead, president of the institute, in a statement.”The Rutherford Institute is standing alongside these family members to ensure that government is not permitted to censor the religious faith that has upheld them and millions of other Americans throughout this tragedy.” The institute said that before the new school year began, the high school in Littleton, Colo., invited parents and other relatives of the victims to decorate tiles that line the school’s hallways to remember those who died. When the parents arrived at the school, they were told they could not include religious messages on the tiles.

Parents objected, so the school permitted the religious content but later, school officials changed their minds and stuck with their first decision to deny the religious messages.

One tile that depicted a small yellow cross and a red rose was later torn down, the institute said.

School district spokeswoman Marilyn Saltzman declined to comment, the Associated Press reported. She said school officials had not yet seen the lawsuit.

Vandals desecrate Berlin Jewish cemetery

(RNS) More than 100 gravestones have been overturned at Berlin’s Weissensee cemetery, the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe. Police suspect right-wing vandals were responsible.”I feel very, very bad and am very concerned,”said Andreas Nachama, the leader of Berlin’s 20,000-strong Jewish community.

Eitan Laserstein, the cemetery’s caretaker, told The New York Times the attack probably occurred on Sunday (Oct. 3), when the cemetery was closed because of a national holiday commemorating the unification of East and West Germany nine years ago.”This looks like a neo-Nazi way of celebrating unity,”he said.

Some 103 tombstones were toppled, uprooted and otherwise damaged in the attack. Overall, the cemetery contains about 115,000 graves, including those of the prominent liberal philosopher Leo Baeck and the anti-Nazi resistance fighter Herbert Baum.

The cemetery also contains memorials to the more than 12,000 German Jews who died fighting for their country in World War I, and the 6 million European Jews murdered by the Nazis.

The attack was the latest in a string of anti-Semitic incidents in Germany, which have included vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and memorials. This was the largest such attack on a cemetery.

During the Hitler era, the cemetery was protected as a”symbol”of how the Nazis treated Germany’s Jewish history, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news service reported.

There were more than 500,000 Jews in Germany when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Nearly 200,000 perished in the Holocaust. Today, about 100,000 Jews live in Germany, many of them relatively recent arrivals from the former Soviet Union who came in search of work.

National Council of Churches, Catholic bishops back Clinton debt plan

(RNS) Two of the nation’s top religious organizations, the U.S. Catholic Conference and the National Council of Churches, have voiced support for President Clinton’s proposal for easing the debt burden of the world’s poorest countries.

Clinton, on Sept. 30, pledged to cancel all $5.7 billion of the debt 36 highly indebted nations owe the U.S. government provided the savings are channeled into programs for education, health and development.

Clinton’s announcement came on the heels of a World Bank-International Monetary Fund initiative to wipe $27 billion from the books of the poorest nations.

A coalition of religious organizations around the word, the Jubilee 2000 Campaign, has mounted a sustained, and increasingly successful, campaign aimed at eliminating the debt of some 40 of the world’s poorest countries by the turning of the millennium.

Clinton’s proposal to cancel the unilateral debt owed to the United States, however, must still be approved by Congress.

Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, chair of the USCC’s international policy committee, called Clinton’s announcement”another step toward achieving substantial if not outright cancellation of the debts of the world’s most heavily indebted poor countries.”While the challenge to eliminate the debts of the world’s poorest countries remains, the president’s announcement brings the world community a step closer to a just solution to this pressing problem,”McCarrick said.

Leaders of the National Council of Churches also commended Clinton.”This is great news to us and shows that our Jubilee 2000 postcards, pins and petition signing had an impact,”said the Rev. Rodney Page, executive director of Church World Service and Witness, the NCC’s humanitarian aid agency. NCC/CWS has been a longtime participant in the Jubilee 2000 campaign and has been especially active in generating grassroots support for the effort.”President Clinton’s pledge has major symbolic and political significance,”Page added.”Although the proposal he is supporting is not as expansive as that which is envisioned by the Jubilee 2000 initiative, this is a big step toward accomplishing our goals.”

Update: Congress adds to debate over New York art exhibit

(RNS) Congress entered the New York-based debate on a controversial art exhibit by passing a nonbinding resolution calling for the end of federal funding for the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Republican lawmakers argued that taxpayers should not have to fund the controversial exhibit, which critics have labeled anti-Catholic and vulgar. Democrats denounced the resolution as an attack on the free expression of artists.

The exhibit, which opened Saturday (Oct. 2), includes a painting of a black Virgin Mary that includes a clump of elephant dung and cutouts from pornographic magazines.”I don’t think that when taxpayers said they supported art funding that this is what they had in mind,”said Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., who sponsored the resolution.

Although Republicans said they were focusing on whether the work should receive public funding and not whether it should be displayed, Democrats disagreed, the Associated Press reported.”The issue before us is censorship,”said Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y.”Make no mistake about it.” The Senate passed a similar nonbinding resolution, sponsored by Sen. Bob Smith, D-N.H., on Sept. 30. That resolution said the funding should be removed unless the exhibit was canceled.

The museum has received $1.1 million in federal money during the last three years.

The exhibit opened to record crowds after New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani criticized the exhibit. The mayor has withheld a portion of the city’s annual subsidy to the museum on grounds that it cannot charge admission in a city-owned building. The museum has sued to get the funding restored, claiming the mayor has violated the First Amendment.

True Love Waits campaign continued at Golden Gate Bridge

(RNS) The True Love Waits campaign continued Saturday (Oct. 2) with 1,500 teens crossing the Golden Gate Bridge with pledge cards committing themselves and others to sexual abstinence.

The teens carried 100,000 pledge cards over the milelong bridge in the latest public demonstration of the campaign that was launched by a division of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1993.

Richard Ross, co-coordinator of True Love Waits, congratulated the teens for their stand.”Teen-agers, you have made a difference,”said Ross.”Laws and policies have changed because of this movement.” During the demonstration, teens carried stacks of signed pledge cards in shifts across the bridge. The cards were mounted on large poster boards, reported Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.

In 1994, True Love Waits cards were posted on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. In 1996, the cards were stacked to the roof of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Leaders of the movement estimate that more than 1 million teens have signed cards pledging they will abstain from sex until marriage.

Martin Sheen given Catholics in Media award for life achievement

(RNS) Actor and peace activist Martin Sheen received a lifetime achievement award in Los Angeles Sunday (Oct. 3) at the annual Mass for entertainment industry Catholics.”The older I get, the less I really know _ and the more I believe,”said Sheen, who currently plays a U.S. president in the White House drama,”West Wing,”on NBC.

More than 600 people attended the Mass, during which Gregory Peck read from Isaiah, and the luncheon and awards ceremony that followed. It was the seventh annual event in which the nonprofit group Catholics In Media Associates honored television shows and film that express clear Judeo-Christian values.

In his Mass homily, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony said that people sometimes wrongly think Nielsen ratings and award nominations”are the measures of how much God loves us. The measure of how much God loves us is not anything that we imagine.” The CBS miniseries”Joan of Arc”won CIMA’s TV award and the CIMA film award went to the Showtime/Miramax drama”Down In The Delta.”The first CIMA Board of Directors’ Award went to the Rev. Ellwood”Bud”Kieser, the Paulist priest-producer best known for his 1989 Central American drama”Romero”and his long-running”Insight”TV series.”People will do things for God they won’t do for money,”he said,”even if they’re not sure they believe in God.”

Israel restores Herodian-era staircase to Temple Mount

A grand Herodian-era staircase once used by Jewish pilgrims to ascend to the Temple Mount was opened to public view by Israel’s Antiquities Authority this week, following a $30 million restoration project.

The”Hulda Ascent”is part of a larger millennium project of archaeological excavations and restorations being sponsored by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism and the city of Jerusalem in the area south of the Temple Mount, known as the Valley of the Kings.

Excavations that were undertaken during the restoration of the”Hulda Ascent”unearthed huge sections of embossed stone cornices believed to be remains of the royal portico constructed on the Temple Mount by King Herod around the beginning of the 1st century A.D. The portico, the largest structure of the era in ancient Israel, was later destroyed by the Romans.

Muslim officials in charge of Al Aksa Mosque, which sits today on the Temple Mount, decried the opening of the staircase, saying it was provocative to Islamic interests on the site. Israeli officials, however, said the restoration work had been done outside of the actual mosque area, in areas open to the general public.

Quote of the day: Joe Smith of Stilwell, Kan.

(RNS)”Evolution is just somebody’s nice theory and doesn’t impact my life. But if you become a Christian and believe in God’s creation, that changes everything, everything in your daily life.” _ Joe Smith, a chemical engineer and creationist, interviewed in the Oct. 5 edition of the Washington Post.


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