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c. 2005 Religion News Service

United Methodist Bishop Will Appeal Case of Reinstated Lesbian Minister

(RNS) The United Methodist bishop of Philadelphia says he will appeal the case of a lesbian minister who was reinstated last week (April 29) after she was initially defrocked for violating a church ban on “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy.

Bishop Marcus Matthews said Tuesday (May 3) he will appeal the case of Irene “Beth” Stroud to the Judicial Council, the church’s highest court, which will hold its next session in late October. Matthews said he will file by May 29, within the 30-day window required by the church.

Last December, Stroud was convicted of violating church rules against active gay clergy. A regional appeals court upheld the conviction but tossed out the sentence, citing legal and procedural errors by the lower court.

Obeying the court, Matthews restored Stroud’s clergy credentials and offered to reassign her to First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia, but Stroud said she will await the outcome of her case before returning to the pulpit.

“I do not want my ordination to be a symbol of who is `winning’ or `losing’ in a controversy at any given moment,” Stroud said in an e-mail to supporters.

“When I do put my robes back on, whether that is at the conclusion of my case or in a number of years … I want that to be simply a symbol of the sacred trust among me, God and the larger church.”

In the meantime, Stroud will continue to serve as a paid staff member of the Philadelphia church but will refrain from exercising any duties of a minister.

_ Kevin Eckstrom

Jury Awards $6 Million to Woman Who Said Methodist Pastor Raped Her

(RNS) A jury in Springfield, Mo., has awarded $6 million in damages to a woman who alleged she was raped by her church pastor and said United Methodist church authorities ignored her pleas for help.

The jury initially gave $2 million to Teresa Norris, and on Wednesday (May 4) awarded an additional $4 million in punitive damages against the West Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Norris said she was raped in 1998 by the Rev. David Finestead at Campbell United Methodist Church. Her lawyers said the bishop and other church leaders ignored complaints about Finestead that were filed as early as 1996.

The verdict has echoes of the nationwide clergy sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, in which critics charged church officials did not respond adequately to complaints against abusive clergy.

“I’m really grateful to the jurors for listening to this whole thing and really making a statement to the conference that things need to change,” Norris said, according to the Springfield News-Leader.

Finestead served at the church from 1995 to 1998. At the time, Norris was the church’s music director.

Finestead agreed to a three-year suspension and later left the denomination. He is now pastor of First Baptist Church in Louisburg, Kan. He has never faced criminal charges related to the case.

Church officials said the damages, which will likely be appealed, will affect the church’s programs. They plan to consult with insurers to find out how much will be covered by insurance policies.

“The reality of that is $6 million taken from money that we have available to us will require us to reduce ministries while we’re paying that amount,” Steve Cox, director of connectional ministries for the conference, told the News-Leader.

Fake Photo of `Nazi Pope’ Stirs Controversy in Italy

ROME (RNS) Italian authorities who ordered a Web site shut down because of a photomontage of the German-born Pope Benedict XVI in a Nazi uniform came under attack Thursday (May 5) for allegedly endangering freedom of expression.

Rome prosecutors accused the Indymedia Italia Web site (http://www.italy.indymedia.org) earlier in the week of insulting the Catholic religion, an offense that carries a penalty of up to one year in prison.

The site is part of the Brazil-based alternative media network Independent Media Center and describes itself as “a voice of the antagonistic Left.”

The photograph showed the pope’s head superimposed on a figure wearing a Nazi uniform and standing in front of a large swastika. He was identified as “Nazi pope.”

Friends of the new pope have said that while growing up in Germany during World War II, the then Joseph Ratzinger was registered without his knowledge as a member of the Hitler Youth. They described the Ratzinger family as anti-Nazi.

Coming to Indymedia’s defense, the left-wing Italian daily Liberation published the fake photograph on its front page over the headline, “For This Photomontage Indymedia Has Been Closed Down.”

Mauro Bulgarelli, a Green Party member of parliament, called the authorities’ action “a new intolerable attack on freedom of expression.” The National Italian Press Federation said earlier it was “an unacceptable attack on critical and satirical freedom.”

Agriculture Minister Gianni Alemanno, a member of the formerly fascist National Alliance, defended the prosecutors. He said that Indymedia Italia had “reached a pinnacle of offensiveness and vulgarity.”

The Web site was still online late Thursday with the headline “IMC Italy seized? Bah!” but the offending photograph had been removed.

_ Peggy Polk

Southern Baptists Pull Support From Houses of Worship Free Speech Bill

(RNS) The Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy commission has withdrawn support for a bill that would allow religious institutions to endorse candidates without threatening their tax-exempt status.

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, once a vocal supporter of the bill, decided it could not affirm the latest version of the Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act, the denomination announced.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., failed a full House vote in 2002 and nearly passed as part of a larger bill last year before the controversial provision was gutted.

The most recent version sponsored by Jones does not permit political views expressed by religious leaders or congregation members to be distributed beyond those attending the service in which they are made.

The agency thinks the changes leave churches open to the possibility of government intrusion, and its leader calls the latest version a “grotesquely bad idea,” reported Baptist Press, the news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“Under the new bill, the government would permit churches to endorse a candidate but then would allow government investigators to come in and determine when the church has exceeded the government’s narrow parameters of permission,” said commission president Richard Land.

“It gives the government foxes a hunting license to enter the churches’ hen houses, and we all know what happens when foxes get into hen houses _ hens get killed, and foxes get fat.”

The latest version of the bill would amend the Internal Revenue Code to prevent the tax-exempt status of religious organizations from being affected by the “content, preparation or presentation” of addresses, such as sermons, at religious meetings or services.

When they supported the bill, commission officials continued to call for Baptist churches to refrain from candidate endorsements, Land said.

_ Adelle M. Banks

Conservative Christians Flood Education Chief With Positive Feedback

(RNS) More than 150,000 conservative Christians have sent letters or e-mail messages to the office of U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, praising her for criticizing a PBS children’s television program that depicted same-sex parents in a positive light.

At issue was “Postcards From Buster,” a show that features a cartoon rabbit visiting real families across the U.S. In one episode, Buster meets Vermont children who had two lesbian mothers. The show received funds from a federal reading grant.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 150,000 members of the American Family Association, a Tupelo, Miss., a conservative Christian organization, contacted Spellings to praise her action. The Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay and lesbian advocacy group, sent 36,233 responses against the action.

In a January letter to PBS President Pat Mitchell, Spellings voiced concern about the show’s content. PBS pulled the episode.

Randy Sharp, director of special projects for the American Family Association, said by his count 185,498 of the association’s nearly 2.2 million members sent e-mails to Spellings to thank her for “standing up for their values.”

Though PBS pulled the episode, WGBH, the Boston television station that creates the show, aired and distributed it.

The Human Rights Campaign said more than 35,000 of the organization’s 600,000 members responded to an “action alert” asking them to e-mail Spellings to express their disappointment.

Winnie Stachelberg, vice president of the campaign’s education arm, said the e-mails “wanted to communicate to the secretary that America’s families reflect the diversity of America and her actions did not respect that diversity.”

_ Celeste Kennel-Shank

Quote of the Day: Anti-Defamation League Director Abraham Foxman

(RNS) “When will someone in the African-American community stand up and say that the Million Man March had a positive message but the pied piper is a racist and anti-Semite?”

_ Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, reacting to the Monday (May 2) announcement that Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is organizing a commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the march, called the “Millions More Movement.” Farrakhan has been accused of making anti-Semitic comments in the past. Foxman was quoted by the Associated Press.

MO/PH END RNS

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