Beliefs Culture

RNS Daily Digest

c. 2006 Religion News Service

Invitation to Indigo Girls Singer to Methodist Event Draws Fire

(RNS) The choice of lesbian singer Emily Saliers of the music duo Indigo Girls has as a keynote speaker at the United Methodist Women’s Assembly in Anaheim, Calif., has created controversy.

Saliers will speak Saturday (May 6) at the conference along with her father, the Rev. Don E. Saliers of Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. They will address an estimated 8,000 women on their new co-written book entitled “A Song to Sing, A Life to Live.”

Saliers’ sexual orientation has been the topic of controversy for some conservatives, but event organizers instead have cited her “spiritual and theological understandings and (her) commitment to justice for women and children” as reasons for the invitation.

The Indigo Girls have devoted much of their 14 records spanning 18 years to themes of social justice and environmental awareness. The elder Saliers is the author of a dozen books and is president of the North American Academy of Liturgy and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality.

Some groups, however, have criticized the church for giving a prominent speaking slot to a lesbian, noting that the Methodists’ constitution says the church cannot “condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

“…Even if Ms. Saliers does not openly advocate for the acceptance of homosexual practice in the Assembly presentations, her public recognition as a lesbian icon puts the Women’s Division in the place of endorsing the lesbian lifestyle and of offending the women of the church,” said Faye Short, president of RENEW, a conservative women’s organization.

The Indigo Girls won a Grammy award for “Best Contemporary Folk Recording” in 1989. Singer Amy Ray is the other half of the duo.

_ Nate Herpich

American Baptists in Pacific Southwest Heading Toward Split

(RNS) A Southern California-based regional group of churches will vote May 11 on whether to sever ties with the American Baptist Churches USA over a debate about homosexuality.

In a nonbinding referendum on April 29, delegates within the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest, based in Covina, Calif., voted 1,125-209 to recommend that its board of directors take that step.

Meeting in seven locations in four states, the delegates were asked to make a recommendation to the board, which has stated that “deep differences of theological convictions and values” between the region and the denomination are “irreconcilable.”

The regional board recommended withdrawal last September after its members concluded that the denomination has not enforced a resolution that states “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The board then sought input from churches in Southern California, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii.

“While the board had authority on its own to withdraw from the national denomination, it called for a special meeting of delegates from churches `to provide the board with the guidance and input it needs to make a responsible and informed decision,”’ the regional group said in a statement.

Leaders of the 1.5-million-member denomination were saddened by the continuing steps by the Pacific Southwest group to sever the relationship.

“It is with profound sorrow that we have come to this point of separation,” said the Rev. A. Roy Medley, general secretary of the American Baptist Churches USA. “We consider it unfortunate that, at a time when secular society is merging and coming together, there are those in our Christian family who seek to divide even in light of our Lord’s request to remain one in unity.”

In a news release, the Valley Forge, Pa.-based denomination stated that if the regional group parts ways, some churches in the association that wish to remain American Baptist intend to immediately form another association of churches.

_ Adelle M. Banks

Appeals Court Says N.Y. Church Can Allow Homeless to Sleep on Steps

(RNS) A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of a prominent New York church that sued to allow homeless people to sleep on its steps and sidewalk.

The April 27 decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a lower court ruling that allows Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church to continue offering shelter on its steps to New York’s homeless population.

In November 2001, the City of New York told the church it could no longer allow homeless people to sleep on its property as it had for the past two years. City officials said the outdoor site constituted an illegal shelter and argued city shelters were better equipped to aid the homeless.

The following month, police began clearing people from the site at night. The church co-filed a suit with the American Civil Liberties Union, stating the raids constituted trespassing, violated the right to free association and hindered the exercise of the church’s religious mission as outlined in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

In March 2002, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a court brief on behalf of the church and several religious organizations, including the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Council of Churches of the City of New York.

A federal judge temporarily barred police from raiding the site during the proceedings, and later ruled that police could not forcibly remove the homeless from the church’s steps. The judge, however, upheld the city’s right to remove them from church-owned sidewalk.

The church called the judge’s initial ruling “a strong defense of religious freedom” that reflects “an important part of the ancient Christian tradition of offering hospitality to the poor and to strangers.”

The church operates a small homeless shelter in its basement. Although the church cannot accommodate all of the people who sleep outside the building, church leaders said they considered them part of their ministry and offered them hot coffee, services and medical attention when needed.

_ Anne Pessala

Prosecutor Promises `Alabama Justice’ for Church Arson Suspects

CENTREVILLE, Ala. (RNS) Authorities announced state arson and burglary charges Wednesday (May 3) against three church fire suspects and said they won’t settle for anything less than a long time behind bars for the former college students.

Grand juries in four counties indicted Matthew Lee Cloyd, Benjamin Nathan Moseley and Russell Lee DeBusk on a total of 46 charges in connection with the fires that occurred Feb. 3 and 7.

“We want them to realize they picked the wrong state to set churches on fire,” said Bibb County District Attorney Michael W. Jackson. “We’re going to send them to prison.”

The seriousness of the crimes should not be underestimated, Jackson said, and the punishment if they’re convicted should send a strong message.

“Short of killing somebody or raping somebody, burning a church is the worst thing you can do,” Jackson said. “It really gets to the essence of a person’s soul.”

Cloyd, 20; Moseley, 20; and DeBusk, 19, were indicted in March on federal charges that say they conspired to damage and destroy by fire nine churches. A conspiracy count also charges that people were injured as a result of the fires; two firefighters were hurt battling one of the fires.

In state court, King said, Cloyd and Moseley each were indicted on nine counts of second-degree arson and nine counts of third-degree burglary. DeBusk was charged with five counts of second-degree arson and five counts of third-degree burglary.

The state charges are as serious as, if not more serious than, federal charges already filed against the suspects, King said. “This is an Alabama situation and there will be Alabama justice,” he said. “Choices have consequences, and the consequences here will be severe.”

Defense attorney Tommy Spina said the state indictments were expected.

“We’re not in a position to say, and don’t want to say, this is not a case that doesn’t deserve a severe consequence for the behavior,” Spina said. “It does. And we’ve always maintained the question is, what is reasonable?”

_ Carol Robinson

Court Sides With Warden in Dispute Over Gay Director of Prison Choir

CINCINNATI _ A federal appeals court has delivered a major victory to the gay rights movement by ruling that Ohio officials can discipline public employees who discriminate, even if the workers say they are following religious beliefs.

The decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati is an important legal development because it means employers can enforce policies that forbid workplace bias based on sexual orientation.

The case involves a lengthy dispute between a Protestant prison chaplain and his bosses in the state prison system. They clashed over the chaplain’s refusal to let an openly gay inmate direct a penitentiary choir in 2002.

William Akridge, a Baptist minister, welcomed gay inmates to his worship services but would not allow homosexuals to become leaders in the nondenominational events.

A prisoner filed a discrimination complaint against Akridge, saying he had been a Christian for 22 years and the church he attended before he was locked up “would not tolerate bigotry.”

Prison officials upheld his complaint. Akridge, a graduate of a Southern Baptist seminary, interpreted scriptures to say he would be “guilty in the sight of God” if he allowed the gay choir director.

Warden Allen Lazaroff at the Madison Correctional Facility suspended the chaplain for insubordination for two days, costing the pastor $329 in pay.

Akridge’s lawyers, David Langdon and Jeffrey A. Shaffer of Cincinnati, were unable to convince the appeals court that prison officials overstepped their authority. Langdon co-authored the 2004 state constitutional amendment that bans gay marriage in Ohio.

Siding with the prison officials, the appeals court noted that they acted properly to enforce a policy aimed at preventing discrimination.

“Although it may be that Akridge could have disbanded the choir and/or praise band entirely, the facts appear to be that he did not do so; rather he openly and intentionally excluded an inmate from such groups,” the appeals court said.

“Even if the ODRC (Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction) had no interest in the existence of the band, this would not vitiate its interest in preventing discrimination and its consequences.”

_ Bill Sloat

Quote of the Day: Birmingham United Methodist Pastor John Verciglio

(RNS) “Prayer is a foundation of our relationship to God. We don’t spend enough time listening to God because we do too much talking.”

_ The Rev. John Verciglio, pastor of Cahaba Heights United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Ala. He was quoted about the National Day of Prayer, observed Thursday (May 4), in The Birmingham News.