July 2001 Issue #76
Texas Supreme Court Issues Rulings
The Texas Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by Houston City Council Member Rob Todd and religious right activist Richard Hotze challenging Mayor Lee Brown’s issuance of an executive order prohibiting city employees from discriminating based on sexual orientation. Hotze and Todd contended that the order nullified a 1985 election overturning an anti-discrimination ordinance adopted by City Council in 1984 and usurped the council’s authority. Hotze, who had organized the 1985 campaign, alleged that he brought the suit as a voter in that election. Todd sued as a council member when the order was issued. Without deciding on the merits of the claims, the court ruled 7-1 that neither Hotze nor Todd had legal standing to challenge the mayor’s order because neither had shown a sufficiently particularized, personal injury resulting from the order.
In another case, the supreme court held that Tarrant County’s operation of the Chaplain’s Education Unit at the county jail was an unconstitutional establishment of religion because it endorsed one religious view while excluding others. The CEU was a cluster of residential jail cells to which inmates could apply. Inmates in the unit studied "orthodox Christian biblical principles." The sheriff and chaplaincy director, paid county employees, chose and supervised the volunteer instructors, chose the curriculum, and determined the requirements for inmate participation. The two acknowledged they were personally involved in selecting and screening the religious teachings offered in the CEU to ensure compliance with their own personal religious beliefs. Neither allowed other religious views to be taught in the unit. The court held that their actions could be perceived as impermissibly reflecting county endorsement of the specific religious content offered in the CEU.
Religious Right Agenda in Congress
The Public Expression of Religion Act of 2001 (H.R.1273) would narrow the remedies available in a suit against state or local officials for violating the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion. A person could sue only for injunctive relief and could not recover attorney’s fees, costs, or monetary damages. The bill’s stated purpose is "to eliminate the chilling effect on the constitutionally protected expression of religion by State and local officials that results from the threat that potential litigants may seek damages and attorney's fees" but it would assuredly have a chilling effect on challenges to unconstitutional religious expression. Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson said the legislation would provide legal protection for people who feel it necessary to post the Ten Commandments. The bill, introduced in the House, has been referred to a subcommittee.
The Senate adopted by 91-8 an amendment to the education bill that some say puts the Senate on record as favoring the teaching of creationism. The amendment reads: "Good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science. Where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions." It was introduced by Sen. Rick Santorum, a religious right ally, and was reportedly drafted by a creationist. It might not survive a conference committee on the final bill.
On June 28, the House Judiciary Committee approved the Community Solutions Act (H.R. 7), the House version of President Bush’s faith-based initiative, in a party-line vote. The committee rejected amendments that would have forced churches and other groups that accept tax dollars to hire people of all religions, ensured that minority religions are not discriminated against, made clear that participants must be offered a secular alternative to religious programs, and eliminated education programs from the legislation. Before the vote, the White House and Republican House leaders had agreed to some changes in the bill in an effort to address concerns about church-state separation but the changes did not appease opponents.
In June, Bush said opponents of his plan "don't understand the power of faith and the promise of faith and the hope of faith." Ironically, Bush’s own denomination, the United Methodist Church, has expressed its opposition to key features of his proposal. On the day of the committee vote, leaders of some of the nation’s largest mainline Protestant denominations held a press conference at which they expressed reservations about the plan. They urged Congress to "slow down and proceed with caution so that the concerns of the religious community may be heard." Over 1,000 religious leaders from across the theological spectrum have signed a petition circulated by The Coalition Against Religious urging Congress and the President to reject the faith-based initiative.
Religious Right Divided Over Stem Cell Research
The religious right has shown signs of division over Bush’s imminent decision on whether to allow federal funding of medical research using stem cells from human embryos. Major religious right groups have conducted letter-writing and e-mail campaigns opposing such funding because it purportedly involves the destruction of human beings. An ABCNews/Beliefnet poll conducted in June, however, found that 51% of evangelicals support embryonic stem cell research, compared to 40% who oppose it.
Mississippi Requires Posting "IN GOD WE TRUST" in Public Schools
Mississippi became the first state to adopt a law requiring every public school classroom, auditorium, and cafeteria to display the national motto "In God we Trust." The state senator who sponsored the legislation admitted, "Prayer and the Ten Commandments have been removed from the classrooms, and I was looking for a way to put back the values I feel that our country was founded upon." The American Family Association, which is based in Mississippi, launched a campaign last year to place a poster bearing the motto in every public school in the nation and has been selling such posters.
The legislature did not provide any funds for the project. A Mississippi printer volunteered to print the posters free of charge because "I felt very strongly about it. It's a start to putting God back in the classrooms."
He has also offered to print for free posters for all bordering states that pass similar laws. The AFA is coordinating the project, asking civic and church groups to provide framed posters for free to a school in their community. "It is our hope that this poster will be a reminder of the historical centrality of God in the life of our republic," the AFA said.
The AFA recommends that people contact their state representatives and governor and ask that a similar measure be adopted in their states. The AFA has pledged that its Center for Law & Policy will defend for free any state sued by the ACLU.
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