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c. 2007 Religion News Service

Methodist Group Files Lawsuit Over Civil Union Flap

(RNS) Luisa Paster and Harriet Bernstein of Ocean Grove, N.J., say they were not trying to start a federal case when they complained last month to the state’s civil rights agency.

“All that we were trying to accomplish was to have our civil union in the boardwalk pavilion” in Ocean Grove, a popular seaside setting for weddings in years past, Paster said.

But a federal lawsuit is just what Paster and Bernstein provoked. It was filed as a pre-emptive strike by the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, the Methodist group that owns the boardwalk pavilion.

The Camp Meeting Association claims its constitutional rights would be violated if it were required to allow civil unions _ which conflict with Methodist doctrine _ to be performed at the pavilion, an open-sided structure it sometimes uses for religious worship.

“What’s at stake is really the autonomy of a religious organization,” said Brian Raum, senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund, one of two conservative legal advocacy groups aiding the Camp Meeting Association. “The government can’t force a private Christian organization to use its property in a way that would violate its own religious beliefs.”

The Camp Meeting Association owns all the land in Ocean Grove, a nearly one-square-mile section of Neptune Township originally founded as a seaside religious retreat. Its homeowners lease their land from the group.

The lawsuit seeks a federal court order blocking J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo, the state director of civil rights, from enforcing state anti-discrimination law against the Camp Meeting Association. That law’s protections were extended to couples who enter civil unions last February.

Lee Moore, a spokesman for Vespa-Papaleo, called the lawsuit “premature.”

“To date, the Division on Civil Rights has asserted nothing beyond its right to initiate an investigation to determine whether there has been a violation of the Law Against Discrimination,” Moore said. He added that the agency investigates about 1,300 complaints each year.

The lawsuit claims Vespa-Papaleo has violated the Camp Meeting Association’s constitutional rights “by subjecting this patently religious entity to an illegal investigation and threat of prosecution under the law.”

“This case is not about whether civil unions should be allowed,” Raum said. “It’s about whether the government should force a private organization to endorse the message of civil unions.”

_ Robert Schwaneberg

ACLU Sues to Stop Church Donations

NEW ORLEANS (RNS) The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in federal court here Monday (Aug. 13) to stop Louisiana from making taxpayer-financed donations to two churches.

The gifts targeted in the case _ $100,000 to the Stonewall Baptist Church in Bossier City and $20,000 to Shreveport Christian Church _ are among 14 appropriations that individual state lawmakers requested for churches in the new state budget signed into law last month by Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

Charging that earmarking church-related grants in the state budget is unconstitutional and that the purposes of the grants are only vaguely described, the ACLU in late June asked Blanco to veto them all, warning the dispute could end up in court otherwise.

According to the ACLU, the state in certain circumstances can give money to religious organizations for some programs that provide nonreligious social services, but the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bars the government from making direct, unrestricted cash payments to churches.

“The state is doling out gifts to its preferred houses of worship with taxpayer money,” said ACLU attorney Daniel Mach, director of the New York-based organization’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

Mach added that in vetoing a $75,000 appropriation for the Southern University marching band, the governor had said there are many college marching bands. “How can that possibly be the rule for marching bands but not churches?” Mach asked.

Joined in the lawsuit by its Louisiana affiliate, the national ACLU also complains that the state budget calls for no oversight of the money the Legislature set aside for the two churches.

Mach said the ACLU tried unsuccessfully to get the Legislature to turn over documents explaining the church grants in detail.

Under a policy adopted earlier this year, House members must fill out a detailed form when asking for money on behalf of nonprofit groups, explaining how the money will be used and who will benefit. But the forms have been declared privileged “work product” and cannot be publicly released unless the lawmaker sponsoring the amendment agrees in writing.

_ Susan Finch

Arsonist’s Family Joins Church in Rebuilt Sanctuary

PANOLA, Ala. (RNS) Hundreds of people filled the seats inside the new sanctuary of Galilee Baptist Church on Sunday (Aug. 12) to celebrate the church’s rebirth more than one year after arsonists burned it to the ground.

Among those who came to celebrate the church’s rise from ruins was the family of one of the arsonists.

Kim, Mike and Meredith Cloyd sat in the church sanctuary, singing hymns, praying and shaking many hands. Afterwards, they thanked parishioners for opening their church home and their hearts to them after the fires.

“We are very humble to be here,” said Kim Cloyd, mother of Matthew Cloyd, one of three students who admitted to setting fire to nine churches across Alabama in February 2006.

“We have met so many new friends through this who have prayed for us and who have forgiven us.”

Cloyd and Benjamin Moseley each were sentenced to 10 years _ eight in federal prison and two in the state system _ for the fires. Another student, Russell DeBusk, was sentenced to nine years _ seven in federal prison and two in state prison _ for setting fire to five churches.

Kim Cloyd said her family last year decided to reach out to the congregations of all of the burned churches.

“We felt like they deserved to hear from us,” she said following a four-hour dedication service. “We felt like they needed to know that this was not about racism or hatred.”

The Rev. Bob Little, pastor of Galilee, said he welcomed the family to his church. “They have come and made atonement,” he said.

The new sanctuary boasts large projection screens and more than enough room for the 50-member congregation. There is also a fellowship hall and classrooms that will be available for public use.

Church members did not point fingers Sunday, instead focusing on the opportunity to build a bigger, better church home.

“I thought that when the church burned that was one of the worst things that could have happened,” church deacon Cleotis Speight said. “But if that had not happened then I would have never met some of the people that I’ve met.”

_ Anita Debro

Quote of the Day: The Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles of Memphis, Tenn.

(RNS) “Martin loved jokes. He said, `If a preacher can’t tell a joke, don’t fool with him ’cause he can’t preach either.”’

_ The Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles, pastor of Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., who spent the last hour of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life with the civil rights leader. He spoke at a news conference at the annual session of the Progressive National Baptist Convention in Washington.

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