c. 2006 Religion News Service
Focus on the Family to Target Eight Battleground States
WASHINGTON (RNS) The conservative evangelical group Focus on the Family will mount a voter registration drive in eight battleground states this fall to “combat voter apathy and encourage Christians to go to the polls,” according to an e-mail sent to supporters.
The drive, announced in an e-mail to activists last week (Aug. 11), solicits volunteer “county coordinators” to “recruit key evangelical churches, friends and family.”
“In 2004, about 25 million evangelicals failed to vote. Now is the time to reverse the trend,” Erin Blad, Focus on the Family’s constituent coordinator, wrote in the e-mail.
The Colorado Springs, Colo.-based ministry is also soliciting “church coordinators” whose “duties include encouraging pastors to speak about Christian citizenship, conducting a voter-registration drive and distributing voter guides,” according to the e-mail.
Each of the eight targeted states _ Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee _ is hosting a race for the U.S. Senate this fall.
As polls show a growing dissatisfaction with Republican leadership in the White House and Congress, liberals are optimistic about their prospects in this fall’s elections.
As a nonprofit organization, Focus on the Family, headed by influential radio host James Dobson, is not allowed to directly endorse specific candidates.
But critics, such as the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, accused Dobson of trying to build a “shameless partisan scheme” to support GOP candidates.
“Dobson wants to be a major political boss, and this is his way to get there,” Lynn said in a statement.
Focus on the Family staffers say the voter drives are nonpartisan and legal. Focus on the Family Action, the political arm of Focus on the Family, will host “arena events” in Nashville, Tenn., Minneapolis and Pittsburgh with other conservative Christian leaders this fall.
“It is our plan to fill large arenas in each city with thousands of people, to alert them to the tremendous issues facing them in the upcoming elections _ and to lay out those issues in nonpartisan fashion,” Tom Minnery, vice president of government and public policy at Focus on the Family Action, said in a news release.
_ Daniel Burke
German Officials to Watch Madonna Show for Religious Insults
(RNS) Pop star Madonna could face legal action in Duesseldorf, Germany, if she repeats a scene in her Sunday (Aug. 20) show that has angered Catholic leaders.
In one of the acts during her four-month, worldwide “Confessions” tour, Madonna sings while attached to a suspended, mirrored cross, with a crown of thorns atop her head.
Johannes Mocken, a spokesman for prosecutors in Duesseldorf, said authorities will rely on media reports, rather than attending the concert, to determine whether Madonna’s act insults religious beliefs, according to The Associated Press.
While this offense is illegal in Germany, the singer could also be shielded by laws protecting artistic freedom, Mocken said, according to the AP.
Madonna has been persona non grata for church officials in Rome since she performed the controversial scene Aug. 6 for 70,000 fans at Rome’s Olympic Stadium, less than a mile and a half from Vatican City.
“To crucify yourself in the city of the pope and the martyrs is an act of open hostility,” Italian Cardinal Ersilio Tonini told Turin’s La Stampa newspaper before the Rome show.
Tonini, who was speaking on the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, said the singer promoted “the will to desecrate, anti-clericalism of the worst taste and, above all, an insult to Christ.”
_ Kat Glass
District Court Says City Councilor Can’t Pray in Jesus’ Name
(RNS) A district court has dismissed a suit by a Virginia city council member who argued the council had violated his freedom of speech by preventing him from praying in Jesus’ name.
The case of the Rev. Hashmel Turner, a pastor and a Fredericksburg, Va., council member, is one of several recently in which courts have had to define the appropriate boundaries for religious expression in civic life.
Turner wanted to invoke Jesus’ name during opening prayers at council meetings; council members take turns offering the invocation. In November, under threat of a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, the council adopted a proposal to offer nondenominational prayers. Turner, with the help of the Rutherford Institute of Charlottesville, Va., sued in hopes of gaining court permission to pray as he wished.
On Monday (Aug. 14), Chief Judge James R. Spencer of the U.S. District Court in Richmond sided with the council, which argued that Turner’s prayer is government speech rather than private speech.
“Since the opening prayer is government speech, it must abide by the mandates of the Establishment Clause,” he ruled, citing U.S. Supreme Court rulings that said the First Amendment prohibits legislative prayers that are sectarian.
John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, said his organization intends to appeal the decision. “Cases of great constitutional importance always face uphill battles,” he said.
Lawyers for the People for the American Way Foundation, who helped represent the Fredericksburg City Council, welcomed the decision.
“The council’s approach is not only constitutional, it also reflects the fact that the council represents all Fredericksburg residents, regardless of their faith,” said Judith E. Schaeffer, deputy legal director of the Washington-based foundation.
In a separate church-state decision, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision declaring that a monument outside the Harris County Civil Courthouse in Houston that contains an open Bible is unconstitutional.
“We hold that although the monument at one time may have passed constitutional scrutiny, its recent history would force an objective observer to conclude that it is a religious symbol of a particular faith, located on public grounds,” the court ruled Tuesday (Aug. 15) in a 2-1 decision.
_ Adelle M. Banks
Pastor Says City Violated His Rights Over Anti-Gay Billboard
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. (RNS) A federal appeals court is considering the case of a Staten Island pastor who says his First Amendment rights were violated when he was not allowed to display an anti-gay billboard that contained Bible verses.
The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case of the Rev. Kristopher Okwedy, pastor of Key Word Ministries, on Aug. 8 in Manhattan. Okwedy is arguing that city officials censored his religious beliefs.
In 2000, Okwedy paid $2,500 for billboard space on Staten Island. The two billboards contained four translations of a verse from Leviticus that condemns homosexuality.
Gay activists and then-Borough President Guy Molinari called for the billboards to be removed; they were covered over within a matter of days.
Okwedy, with the support of the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy, filed a suit in federal court claiming that his civil rights were violated. The suit was dismissed in 2001, reinstated by a state appeals court in 2003 and dismissed again in federal court in October 2005.
The recent arguments represent the latest appeal. Stephen Crampton, Okwedy’s attorney, said he and his client are prepared to take the case before the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
“It’s a very serious issue when you have government officials proclaiming _ or in this case condemning _ a religious belief, quoted directly from the Bible,” said Crampton, chief counsel for the Mississippi-based American Family Association.
He said the city’s action amounted to censorship. “Now that the city has officially condemned Pastor Okwedy, no billboard company will take his money,” Crampton said.
Kristin Helmers, senior counsel of the appeals division of the New York City Law Department, said in an e-mail statement that the appeals court is “carefully reviewing the district court’s ruling in the city’s favor, and we’re awaiting a decision.”
Okwedy’s case is a reflection of the city’s bias against Christianity, Crampton said.
“If the City of New York officially condemned Islam as bigoted or intolerant of women or homosexuals, the pundits would be all over it in a New York minute,” he said. “The city basically played favorites here. Homosexuals have a preferred position in the city over Christians.”
_ Leslie Palma-Simoncek
Quote of the Day: Country singer Willie Nelson
(RNS) “I believe that all roads lead to the same place. We’re taking different ways to get there, but we all end up in the same place. It’s kind of like Kinky Friedman’s statement, `May the God of your choice bless you.’ That’s the main thoughts that I have about life.”
_ Country singer Willie Nelson, author of the recently published “The Tao of Willie,” responding to a question from Time magazine about how his views about Tao may differ from his Methodist roots.
KRE/PH END RNS