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c. 2008 Religion News Service

Atheists sue over Ky. Law tying homeland security to God

(RNS) The American Atheists have sued the commonwealth of Kentucky after learning that a law requires the state’s Office of Homeland Security to declare its reliance on God for safety.

The New Jersey-based atheist group filed suit Tuesday (Dec. 2) in a Kentucky court seeking a ruling that a 2002 law stating that “the safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance on God” is unconstitutional.

The atheists are particularly concerned about a 2006 law that calls for the divine-reliance wording to be spelled out on a plaque at the entrance of the state’s Emergency Operations Center.

“It’s part of the law to publicize that God is necessary for homeland security,” said David Silverman, spokesman for American Atheists. “That’s part of the law and it’s patently unconstitutional. It’s so offensive, not just from an atheistic point of view but from an American point of view because these people are trying to bring the religious debate into homeland security.”

The laws were both sponsored by Democratic delegate Tom Riner of Louisville, Ky., who also is a Southern Baptist minister.

“It’s a frivolous lawsuit that American Atheists has launched to attempt to censor and suppress the publication of a key law that acknowledges divine providence,” said Riner, pastor of Christ is King Baptist Church.

He said the laws did not get much attention when he sponsored them.

But he’s getting attention now, and the state is being sued, after the Lexington News-Leader wrote a story about them in late November.

Jay Blanton, a spokesman for Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the lawsuit but added: “There’s a law in place and it’s our intent to follow the law.”

_ Adelle M. Banks

Odetta, Folk Singer Who Gave Voice to Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 77

(RNS) Odetta, the folk singer whose deep and powerful voice became a soundtrack for the civil rights movement of the 1960s, died Tuesday (Dec. 1) in New York after a decade-long fight with heart disease. She was 77.

Born Odetta Holmes, in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 31, 1930, she was one of the most well-known folk and blues singers of the 1950s and 1960s; her rich voice was equally at home in the anguish of prison and work songs, the gentlest of English ballads, as well as the anger and hope of spirituals.

But it was at the 1963 March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., gave his “I Have a Dream” speech and Odetta sang the slave-era “O Freedom,” with its lines “before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave, And go home to my Lord and be free” that forever linked her voice with the hopes, aspirations and tragedies of the movement.

Odetta moved to Los Angeles with her widowed mother in 1940 and earned a music degree from Los Angeles City College. Her training in classical music and musical theater was, she told an interviewer, “a nice exercise, but it had nothing to do with my life.”

In 1950 she began performing professionally and found a following singing in the coffeehouses of San Francisco. It was in mining the rich tradition of blues and spirituals that she found her distinctive style _ a style that would influence and shape the rising generation of folk singers such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and such groups as Peter, Paul and Mary.

Dylan, in a 1978 interview, recalled that, “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta,” and he noted he learned many of the songs on her first album, “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues.”

_ David E. Anderson

Rastafarian can seek trial on religious discrimination, court says

BOSTON (RNS) Massachusetts’ high court has ruled that a Rastafarian man is entitled to a trial on possible religious discrimination for refusing to cut his hair or beard to comply with Jiffy Lube’s policy on grooming.

The state Supreme Judicial Court ruled Dec. 2 for Bobby T. Brown, a Rastafarian and former lube technician at a Jiffy Lube in Hadley, Mass., owned by F. L. Roberts & Co. Inc. of Springfield.

Brown, who has a full beard and dreadlocks, said that his religion forbids him from shaving his beard or cutting his hair. Rastafarianism is a religious movement among Jamaicans that teaches the eventual redemption of blacks and their return to Africa. It employs the ritualistic use of marijuana and forbids the cutting of hair.

The company launched a new policy in January 2002 that required employees to be clean shaven and to have neatly trimmed hair if they work with customers. Brown was permanently assigned to work in a lower bay of the oil change business.

Brown filed suit against F. L. Roberts & Co. in 2006, saying that under state law, the company discriminated against him because of his religion.

Associate Justice Roderick L. Ireland, of the state Supreme Judicial Court, wrote that under state law, an employer is required to provide a reasonable accommodation for an employee’s religious needs unless there is an “undue hardship” on the company.

The company failed to prove that it would suffer an undue hardship, Ireland wrote.

“We … conclude that an exemption from a grooming policy cannot constitute an undue hardship as a matter of law,” Ireland wrote.

Claire L. Thompson, lawyer for F. L. Roberts & Co., said she was disappointed in the high court’s decision. The policy affected everyone who had facial hair, she said.

“The policy had absolutely nothing to do with religion,” Thompson said.

_ Dan Ring

ACLU sues over inmate’s right to preach

NEWARK, N.J. (RNS) The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit on behalf of a New Jersey prison inmate who was ordained behind bars eight years ago and now contends his religious freedoms were violated when prison officials forbade him from preaching.

Howard N. Thompson Jr., convicted of murder in 1985 and sentenced to 30 years to life in prison, was ordained as a Pentecostal minister in 2000 and preached regularly for other prisoners for years before corrections officials prohibited preaching by inmates in June 2007.

Edward Barocus, legal director of the ACLU in New Jersey, said the ban is unnecessary and that preaching is an essential part of Thompson’s Pentecostal Christian faith.

“A number of religions have active preaching as a requirement,” Barocus said. “It’s not for the state to determine what is or what is not part of the religion. … The right to religious freedom and freedom of speech does not extinguish at the cell block gate.”

The suit names two defendants: Michelle Ricci, administrator of New Jersey State Prison, a maximum-security facility in Trenton, and George Hayman, commissioner of the state Department of Corrections. A spokeswoman for the DOC said Wednesday (Dec. 3) the agency would have no comment.

The suit contends the ban has no practical purpose for prison management and violates Thompson’s religious rights under both the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. It also contends Thompson’s past preaching has never caused problems for prison officials.

The suit says Thompson, 44, first preached at a religious service in the prison about a decade ago, when he relieved a prison chaplain who was ill. Later, he would periodically preach at Sunday services, teach Bible study classes, and lead the prison choir.

After his ordination in 2000 _ overseen by a prison chaplain _ he preached more regularly, the suit contends. He often worked with the chaplain at the time, the Rev. Samuel Atchison, until Atchison was replaced by the DOC in September 2006. Thompson continued to preach, usually under the supervision of chaplain volunteers, until a new prison chaplain, the Rev. Pamela Moore, took over in June 2007, the suit says.

Barocus said the ban placed on preaching by inmates that was instituted after Moore’s arrival was not explained by the prison’s administration. He said Thompson is willing to agree to preach only with staff supervision, and that it was unfair to ban inmate preaching when inmates are allowed other duties.

“I have not heard of an outright ban like this in the other prisons in New Jersey,” he said.

The complaint seeks permission for Thompson to preach, along with nominal damages and attorneys’ fees.

_ Jeff Diamant

Church leaders ask Obama for action on economy

WASHINGTON (RNS) Church leaders from around the globe met Wednesday (Dec. 3) in Washington to discuss their hopes for an Obama administration and their wish for a new style of leadership in the Oval Office.

Leaders from U.S. churches gathered for a three-day summit convened by the Geneva-based World Council of Churches’ U.S. division.

The Rev. John Thomas, president and general minister of the United Church of Christ, stressed the American president’s understated role as a public theologian who shapes the way people understand their relationship to God, their outlook on the world, and their sense of morality.

Last June, President-elect Barack Obama resigned his membership in Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ after sermons by his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, became a drag on his campaign.

“I do take comfort in the fact that Barack Obama has been schooled in this role by a preacher named Jeremiah,” Thomas said, in a veiled reference to the outspoken Old Testament prophet Jeremiah.

Thomas said that he hopes Obama looks to Abraham Lincoln who “refused to pander to Americans’ desire for optimistic and self-righteous interpretations of their own history even in the midst of this nation’s greatest moral test.”

Other leaders at the WCC summit brought up the recession and housing market collapse as concerns.

“Now it’s an economic crisis that demands our attention,” said the Rev. Gradye Parsons, the stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA). “Our hope is that this current crisis does not become king, consuming us entirely and overshadowing the issues of ordinary people.”

Parsons said many middle class Americans ignored warning signs of a financial crisis. “We need to confess that it wasn’t just predatory lending, but predominately, I think, it was predatory acquisition … by people in my pews and in your pews.”

“Mr. President, before you save us, let us have a chance to profess our ills,” Parsons said.

The U.S. Conference of the World Council of Churches will use the concerns and issues raised by the panelists to draft a letter to send to Obama after he takes office on Jan. 20.

_ Brittney Bain

Salvation Army says no flexibility on officer marriage policy

WASHINGTON (RNS) The top spokesman for the Salvation Army on Friday (Dec. 5) signaled that there is no flexibility in a marriage policy that threatens to end the career of a Salvation Army officer who plans to marry a non-officer next June.

Capt. Johnny Harsh of Oshkosh, Wis., was suspended after he told superiors that he plans to marry a woman who is not a Salvation Army officer. His former wife, Capt. Yalanda “Yoley” Harsh, died last June.

Maj. George Hood, the national community relations and development secretary for the Salvation Army, said the marriage policy is “almost as old as the organization itself” and serves the officers’ long-term interests.

“Married couples, each with the same calling and working together for the same purpose, are more effective in service and better able to support each other,” Hood said in a statement to Religion News Service.

“Each officer `cadet’ is made aware of this policy before attending one of The Salvation Army’s two-year office training schools.”

Harsh told The Northwestern newspaper in Oshkosh that he was aware of the policy, but doesn’t agree with it. He also knew what the consequences were for disobeying it.

“For the Salvation Army to let me go because I will marry outside of the (Salvation) Army, I think is wrong,” Harsh told the newspaper. “I pray that people will write letters and call the Salvation Army to change this ruling. It wouldn’t be for my benefit, but for future officers.”

Hood declined to comment on Harsh’s specific case because it is considered a private “personnel” matter.

Harsh said his fianc�e “saved my life” after the sudden death of his wife. Salvation Army officials also told Harsh the woman could not stay the guest room of his house, which he also disagreed with.

“I told them … as long as I live in that house, I can have anyone there that I want,” Harsh told The Northwestern. “In my 14 years with the Salvation Army, my wife, Yoley, and I had prostitutes, drug users, homeless people and abused women and their children stay in that house. However, I signed a covenant to obey my Salvation Army leaders and I have failed to obey my leaders.”

Harsh said he would be “very very surprised” if he is not dismissed, and if he is, plans to move to Waukesha, Wis., and start a non-denominational church.

_ Kevin Eckstrom

Conservative Anglican primates back new province

(RNS) Five Anglican archbishops have backed the introduction of a new Anglican province in North America, a significant, though unsurprising boost for the conservative-led initiative.

“We fully support this development with our prayer and blessing,” said the archbishops, who are called primates because they lead regional branches of the worldwide Anglican Communion. “It demonstrates the determination of these faithful Christians to remain authentic Anglicans.”

Last Wednesday (Dec. 3), a group of conservative dissidents announced that they were starting a branch of the Anglican Communion called the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). The group claims 100,000 members, including most of four dioceses that have split with the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the communion, in the last year.

The new province faces several obstacles before it is officially admitted to the Anglican Communion, however, including the approval of two-thirds of the communion’s 38 primates.

Released on Dec. 6, the primates’ statement was signed by: Archbishop Henry Orombi of Uganda, Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi of Kenya, Archbishop Emmanuel Kolini of Rwanda, Archbishop Gregory Venables of the Southern Cone (South America), and Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria.

All of the archbishops are members of the Global Anglican Future Conference, a conservative group that disparages the Episcopal Church and Anglican Church of Canada as preaching the “false gospel” of gay rights.

Last July, GAFCON, as the group is known, met in Jerusalem and encouraged North American conservatives to create the new province.

In recent years, both the U.S. and Canadian churches have separately moved leftward on sexual orientation issues, including the election of a gay man as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 and the approval of same-sex blessings in some dioceses.

The conservatives’ statement was released after the five primates met on Friday with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who is spiritual leader of the world’s 77 million Anglicans.

Williams has not commented publicly on ACNA. A spokesman has said it will “take years” for ACNA to gain approval as a province.

The GAFCON primates said: “A new province will draw together in unity many of those who wish to remain faithful to the teaching of God’s word, and also create the highest level of fellowship possible with the wider Anglican Communion.”

_ Daniel Burke

Interim Russian Orthodox leader chosen after Alexy’s death

(RNS) Metropolitan Kirill, the Russian Orthodox leader of the provinces of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, has been chosen as the interim leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, following the death Friday (Dec. 5) of Patriarch Alexy II.

Kirill, 62, was chosen by secret ballot by the Holy Synod, a ruling group of 12 senior clergy who met Saturday outside Moscow, Reuters reported.

He is considered to be a reformer in his approach to relations with the Russian government and the Roman Catholic Church. He leads the church’s external relations department and has appeared often on television representing the church.

The next patriarch must be chosen within six months and Kirill is viewed as one of four candidates in the running, the news agency reported.

As Alexy lay in state on Sunday in the gold-domed Christ the Savior

Cathedral in Moscow, Kirill conducted a two-hour service at his coffin. Alexy’s funeral is scheduled for Tuesday.

The patriarch, who died of heart failure at age 79, was elected in 1990 and helped his church revive after it had been repressed under communism.

President Bush offered condolences to members of the church and the Russian people.

“The president’s heart is with the community of Russian believers as they continue to rebuild the rich spiritual traditions of Russia,” said White House Press Secretary Dana Perino.

_ Adelle M. Banks

La. bishop, stung by Katrina, announces retirement

NEW ORLEANS (RNS) Louisiana Episcopal Bishop Charles Jenkins announced his retirement Thursday, noting health and other issues.

“I am of the mind that a healthy bishop, fully engaged with the needs of the diocese and one who has the confidence of the clergy of the diocese, will better lead us through this challenge and into the future,” he said.

Jenkins said it’s better if he takes a rest away from the stress and strains of the episcopate.

“My struggle with health issues since Katrina has not been a secret,” Jenkins wrote in a widely distributed letter, alluding to the hurricane that rocked New Orleans in 2005.

“My PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) was exaggerated by the experiences of the mandatory evacuation in Hurricane Gustav. The symptoms that accompany the PTSD now seem deeper and more frequent.”

Jenkins said he considered other alternatives to retirement, such as a medical leave or a sabbatical. But “there is no assurance that I would be back to lead the diocese,” he said. And he said he was not willing to ask the diocese to take such a risk.

Under his leadership, the diocese taught itself how to build low-cost housing by inventing its Jericho Road Housing Initiative, which has built homes in Central City.

At the request of residents who had been helped by Episcopal volunteers, the diocese planted a small new church in the Lower 9th Ward, the overwhelmingly black, Protestant neighborhood least likely to host an Episcopal presence before the storm.

In the letter announcing his retirement, he notes that in such ministries he finds “energy, excitement and satisfaction.”

“I pray that God will enable me to continue to give myself to the work of a newly constituted Episcopal Community Services in Louisiana,” he wrote. “I hope by God’s grace that I will be able to devote even more time and energy to the social ministry in Louisiana.”

Courtney Cowart, who was hired by Jenkins to reshape the Louisiana diocese’s relief ministry, said, “I understand his decision.” Cowart added that the process to find the 11th bishop for the diocese will be a lengthy one.

“I have great confidence,” she said, “that the important work of the diocese post-Katrina will be sustained.”

Jenkins said he will remain bishop of the diocese until Dec. 31, 2009, and “I shall do all in my power to see that we stay on this path to biblical justice . . .”

_ Leslie Williams

Bush talks faith, won’t say God chose him to be president

(RNS) President Bush says he prays in the Oval Office and his faith has changed his life but he can’t say if God chose him to be president, ABC News reports.

“I just, I can’t go there,” Bush said in an interview that aired Monday (Dec. 8) on “Nightline.” “I’m not that confident in knowing, you know, the Almighty, to be able to say, `Yeah, God wanted me of all the other people.”’

Speaking at length about his beliefs, the president said he’s “not a literalist” when reading the Bible and he “would have been a pretty selfish person” without his faith. He also thinks belief in God and evolution are not mutually exclusive.

“I happen to believe that evolution doesn’t fully explain the mystery of life,” he said.

The president said he thinks he prays to the same God as others with different faiths, but that doesn’t include terrorists.

“I think anyone who murders to achieve their religious objective is not a religious person,” he said. “They may think they’re religious, and they play like they’re religious, but I don’t think they’re religious. They are not praying to the God I pray to … the God of peace and love.”

He also said that going to war in Iraq “was not a religious decision.”

Bush hopes President-elect Barack Obama will continue aspects of his White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

“I think he knows that in certain communities, in order to help achieve a national objective there needs to be something more powerful than government, and you can find that there’s something more powerful than government on nearly every street corner, in a house of worship,” he said.

_ Adelle M. Banks

Quote of the Week: Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco

(RNS) “Tolerance, respect, and trust are always two-way streets, and tolerance respect and trust often do not include agreement, or even approval. We need to be able to disagree without being disagreeable. … We need to stop hurling names like `bigot’ and `pervert’ at each other. And we need to stop it now.”

_ Archbishop George Niederauer, writing in his archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic San Francisco, about reconciliation after the passage of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages.


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