RNS Daily Digest

c. 2008 Religion News Service

School settles suit over commencement in Baptist church

NEWARK, N.J. (RNS) School officials have settled a lawsuit filed on behalf of a former Muslim student who was forced to skip his graduation two years ago because it was held in the sanctuary of a Baptist church.

As a Muslim, Bilal Shareef's faith prohibited him from entering a building with religious icons, such as pictures of God or images of the cross, according to the suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union-New Jersey.

The suit argued both the graduation and a yearly baccalaureate service held in a Catholic church discriminated against Shareef because of his religious beliefs.

``I was forced to choose between honoring my education and my faith, and no one should be put in that position,'' Shareef said in a statement. ``I'm proud that I stood up for my beliefs, and I'm proud that my experience will keep other students from having to face the choices I did.''

Filed in March 2007, the suit claimed when West Side High School held its graduation at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark two years ago, the district violated the state Constitution by forcing people to attend a place of worship contrary to their faith and discriminated because of religious principles.

The practice of rewarding students with extra graduation tickets if they attended the annual baccalaureate program at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart was also challenged.

According to the settlement reached last week, the district agreed not to sponsor or promote religious events, to no longer reward students for attendance at religious events or ceremonies, and to stop using religious buildings or places of worship for school events.

``There is a reason the Constitution forbids preference of one religion over the other: Government, especially school officials, should not be in the position of making certain people feel favored, while making others feel like outsiders,'' said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas, who represented Shareef and his father, Ahmad Shareef.

The settlement still allows Newark schools to schedule events with other schools that use religious buildings, and students may still visit religious buildings if the purpose is ``both academic and secular in nature.''

Superintendent Marion Bolden wouldn't reveal the amount, but confirmed there was a financial settlement between the district and Shareef. Barocas would not comment on the monetary settlement.

The district also apologized to the Shareefs and other students who ``felt forced to forego or uncomfortable attending the 2005 or 2006 graduations,'' Barocas said.

_ Kasi Addison

American Bible Society ends contract with its president

(RNS) The president of the American Bible Society has been removed from his job just weeks after news reports that an Internet contractor that had received millions from the society had past ties to the pornography industry.

The chairman of the trustee board for the New York-based society announced Friday (June 6) that the annual contract of ABS President Paul Irwin would not be renewed.

ABS spokeswoman Erin Mitchell said that decision was ``completely unrelated'' to The New York Times' reporting about the society's former Internet contractor.

``It was not a reflection of any wrongdoing,'' Mitchell said. ``It was simply a matter of looking after the best interests of the Bible society and the donors and moving forward.''

The society's board has given its executive vice presidents, R. Lamar Vest and the Rev. Simon Barnes, interim responsibility for the day-to-day operations.

Richard Stewart, the society's chief financial officer, remains on leave at the trustees' request, Mitchell said. He was placed on leave in May at the same time as Irwin.

The society has ``ended absolutely'' its relationship with the contractor, Mitchell said.

When the board announced the leaves for Irwin and Stewart, it committed to a financial review of the organization. ``It is an independent, detailed audit,'' Mitchell said.

Irwin is a United Methodist minister who worked as an executive of the Humane Society of the United States before taking the presidential post at the Bible society in 2006.

_ Adelle M. Banks

Religion actually does aid happiness, professor says

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (RNS) The perception that people unfettered by religion are happier than those who regularly attend church is false, an economist says.

``People who believe in no moral constraints on activities have less happiness,'' said Arthur Brooks, professor of business and government policy at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, during a lecture series sponsored by the Acton Institute.

Compared to ``secularists'' _ whom Brooks defined as those who attend religious services once a year or not at all _ people who faithfully practice their religion make life easier for the rest of us.

Those who attend religious services at least once a week commit fewer crimes, are less likely to divorce, and are more likely to donate to nonreligious causes, said Brooks, author of the recently released ``Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America _ and How We Can Get More of It.''

Their willingness to give to the common good benefits everyone, Brooks added. ``If you honestly have beliefs, if you have values and adhere to them, that will give you peace,'' he said.

Brooks said there is an exception to his benchmark for happiness: people who view God as a condemning deity, and those who believe, but infrequently practice, their faith. They end up fearing death the most, he said.

Defining happiness and knowing how to find it is an exercise in futility for them, he said.

But those who have a sense of control of their lives, spend time with a close circle of friends, and shun self-centeredness are moving in the right direction, said Brooks.

``Finding a way to serve others gives us a way to bring happiness,'' he said. ``Entrepreneurs are so happy because they feel like they're creating value in people's lives.''

_ Paul R. Kopenkoskey

Quote of the Day: Oralee Williams of St. Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago

(RNS) ``He's a black Jesus stuck in a white man's body.''

_ Parishioner Oralee Williams, about the Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago. Pfleger has been suspended from ministry until June 16 for mocking Sen. Hillary Clinton in a sermon last month. Williams was quote by the Chicago Tribune (June 8).