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Friday, January 17, 2014

Atheist group’s prison book project aims to turn inmates against God

Douglas Ernst ("The Washington Times," January 15, 2014)

A humanist advocacy group has launched a book project designed to provide inmates with an atheist-based alternative to religious literature distributed in prisons.
The Freethought Books Project was began in December by the Center for Inquiry. Members of the group have made a concerted effort to collect and donate material to counter biblical teaching given to convicts.
“The project offers donated books on atheism, humanism, science, and skepticism to prisoners who seek alternatives to the religious proselytizing and indoctrination that is often unavoidable within the prison system,” states a press release announcing the project. “It will also connect inmates with volunteer pen pals at CFI branches with whom they can connect and share ideas.”
Steve Wells, author of “The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible,” donated copies of his book to the project.
“We think it’s important to provide an alternative to the Bibles and other religious materials that are continually pushed upon prison inmates,” he said.
Members of the Center for Inquiry aren’t the only ones participating. Individuals who know of the project of purchased atheist literature off an Amazon Wish List that was set up to promote the initiative, according to The Blaze.
“By providing books, as well as connections through the pen pal network, we offer prisoners much-needed ties to the outside world and open minds to the wonders of science and critical thinking,” project coordinator Sarah Kaiser told the Christian Post.
Since the initiative launched in December, 45 inmates have reportedly requested books from the Center for Inquiry, according to the Post.

Muslim Women Challenge American Mosques: 'Now Is The Time'

Monique Parsons ("NPR," January 15, 2014)

Most American mosques do a poor job of including women, according to a recent study co-sponsored by the Islamic Society of North America. Sometimes that means subpar women's prayer spaces, a lack of leadership roles or little programming relevant to women.
For Edina Lekovic, a recent visit to a mosque meant being asked to use a separate entrance from the one men use. Lekovic works for the Muslim Public Affairs Council and sits on a regional Islamic advisory board in Southern California. She goes to mosques a lot for meetings and Friday prayers.
"I was walking towards the front door only to be told by a boy of no more than 12 years old — he pointed to the side of the building and said, 'Oh, the sisters' entrance is over there,' " she says.
Lekovic is religious: She covers her hair and doesn't mind praying separately from men as is Islamic custom. But entering through a different door? "And I sort of stopped dead in my tracks and looked around for an adult figure that I could have the conversation with," she says.
Nobody else was around. "So I looked at this 12-year-old boy and said, 'There's a separate entrance for women? Why is that?' just to see what he would say, and he sort of shrugged his shoulders and said, 'It just is,' " she says.
Lekovic is also a teacher, and she decided to seize the moment. "My final response to him was, 'Well, the mosque that I go to on the other side of town has everybody walk through the same set of doors,' " she says.
Lekovic says there was a time she might have slipped in the side entrance, quietly fuming. But things are changing. Just a few years ago, a woman's place in the mosque was a fringe issue.
"There was to some degree pushback around this, like, 'We're dealing with enough challenges right now,' that you know, 'Wait your turn' was kind of the attitude," Lekovic says. "Today more and more women are saying, 'Now is the time.' "
Lekovic says there is a rich history of Islamic teachings that preach equality for women. But she also gives credit to a 34-year-old Chicago woman named Hind Makki. Last year, Makki started an online project called Side Entrance, where women from around the world share photos of their prayer spaces. Not all the photos are negative. Submissions range from isolated, moldy storerooms to soaring, lushly carpeted halls.
"The tag line is: 'We showcase the beautiful, the adequate and the pathetic,' " says Makki.
The project began when she snapped photos of women's prayer spaces in some Chicago mosques and posted them on her Facebook page. One showed women praying behind a tall room divider, blocking views; another looked like a walk-in closet with a curtain-covered window. The photos went viral.
"I got a lot of response, and one of the most interesting type of responses I got was from men who had no clue," Makki says.
While some accused her of airing dirty laundry, many Muslim men started asking how they could help.
"They just had no idea that this was somewhat typical of women's experiences at a mosque — that you go to a mosque and you don't see a dome; you don't see the imam, certainly; you don't see the architecture — you see a big wall in front of you," she says.
Shahina Saeed is on the board of directors of the Islamic Society of Orange County, one of the oldest and largest mosques in Southern California.
"I'm surprised that in a big city like Chicago there's a place like that where the women can't even see what's going on in front of them. I would not be comfortable in a space like that," she says.
At the Islamic Society of Orange County, women pray in a big loft with an outdoor patio and views of the imam and the mosque's colorful glass dome. They can also pray on the main floor in an area beside the men. Saeed says she feels at home here. The Islamic Society of North America study found that more women showed up for events at mosques like hers: those with female board members, female speakers and attractive women's prayer spaces.
Lekovic says this conversation is about more than side entrances.
"Part of what's at stake is the question of where Muslim women will put their talents. Now, if the mosque is an environment in which they see that the fruits of their labor will be beneficial to the community, they will put their time and energy there," she says.
National Muslim leaders are paying attention. The Islamic Society of North America is urging mosques to recruit more female board members, and a recent conference centered on a campaign to improve women's prayer spaces.

Margaret Thatcher gave full support over Golden Temple raid, letter shows

Phil Miller ("The Guardian," January 15, 2014)

Margaret Thatcher gave her Indian counterpart Indira Gandhi Britain's full support in the immediate aftermath of the 1984 Golden Temple raid, according to private correspondence seen by the Guardian.
The then British prime minister sent a personal note saying that Britain supported India's unity in the face of demands for a separate Sikh homeland and disclosed that police were investigating threats against the safety of Indian diplomats.
The letter will cause further debate about Britain's role in the raid among the worldwide Sikh community and senior MPs across the political spectrum after it was disclosed on Monday that the Indian government had made an apparent request for advice from the SAS in the months leading up to the raid.
It will form part of an investigation launched by the cabinet secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, on the orders of David Cameron to determine the British government's actions over the raid on Sikhism's holiest site in Amritsar.
The Indian government says about 400 people were killed when Gandhi sent troops into the temple complex in June 1984 in the six-day Operation Blue Star. Sikh groups, which have called for an inquiry into the British role in "one of the darkest episodes in Sikh history", put the death toll in the thousands, including many pilgrims.
In what appears to be the first letter to Gandhi after the raid, sent on 30 June 1984, Thatcher wrote: "These have been anxious weeks for you, involving difficult decisions. I have followed closely your efforts to restore calm there, and I very much hope that the 'healing touch' for which you have called will open the way to a peaceful and prosperous future in that troubled region."
The letter, which is in response to two sent by Gandhi on 9 and 14 June, appears to show that the Indian prime minister had expressed worries that Sikh "extremists" could use Britain as a base. Thatcher wrote: "I well appreciate your concern about the potential security threat posed by extremists outside India. We are determined not to allow our traditional freedoms to be abused by those who seek to use violence for political ends."
In an apparent reference to death threats against Gandhi which had been reported in the British media, the UK prime minister who died last year wrote: "We have made sure the police are aware of these statements and they are investigating them."
Thatcher also reassured Gandhi that British police were "devoting considerable resources" to safeguarding Indian government personnel in Britain.
A few months after the letter was sent, Gandhi was gunned down by her own Sikh bodyguards in a claimed act of revenge. This triggered communal violence which led to the deaths of thousands of Sikhs across India.
Other documents in the file make clear Whitehall's interest in lucrative arms sales to India at this time. A secret Foreign Office briefing dated 22 June 1984, which was sent to Downing Street, stressed that British "commercial interests" in India were "very substantial. It it a large and growing market for both commercial and defence sales. British exports in 1983 exceeded £800m and since 1975 India has bought British defence equipment worth over £1.25bn," the document claims.
Cameron on Wednesday appeared to downplay the likelihood of an inquiry finding evidence that Britain was to blame for the raid. Labour's former deputy chairman Tom Watson suggested the British might have played a part in the assault on the temple in exchange for the Indians agreeing to purchase a fleet of helicopters in a £65m deal.
Watson said to Cameron: "On your Amritsar inquiry, instead of ordering the civil servants to investigate, why don't you just ask lords Geoffrey Howe and Leon Brittan what they agreed with Margaret Thatcher, and whether it had anything to do with the Westland Helicopter deal at the time?" Cameron dismissed any suggestions of a conspiracy.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Pope and the devil: Francis’ fascination with Satan leads to suspicion he performed exorcism

(AP, May 21, 2013)

Vatican City — Pope Francis’ fascination with the devil took on remarkable new twists Tuesday, with a well-known exorcist insisting Francis helped “liberate” a Mexican man possessed by four different demons despite the Vatican’s insistence that no such papal exorcism took place.
The case concerns a 43-year-old husband and father who traveled to Rome from Mexico to attend Francis’ Mass on Sunday in St. Peter’s Square. At the end of the Mass, Francis blessed several wheelchair-bound faithful as he always does, including a man possessed by the devil, according to the priest who brought him, the Rev. Juan Rivas.
Francis laid his hands on the man’s head and recited a prayer. The man heaved deeply a half-dozen times, shook, then slumped in his wheelchair.
The images, broadcast worldwide, prompted the television station of the Italian bishops’ conference to declare that according to several exorcists, there was “no doubt” that Francis either performed an exorcism or a simpler prayer to free the man from the devil.
The Vatican was more cautious. In a statement Tuesday, it said Francis “didn’t intend to perform any exorcism. But as he often does for the sick or suffering, he simply intended to pray for someone who was suffering who was presented to him.”
The Rev. Gabriele Amorth, a leading exorcist for the diocese of Rome, said he performed a lengthy exorcism of his own on the man Tuesday morning and ascertained he was possessed by four separate demons. The case was related to the legalization of abortion in Mexico City, he said.
Amorth told RAI state radio that even a short prayer, without the full rite of exorcism being performed, is in itself a type of exorcism.
“That was a true exorcism,” he said of Francis’ prayer. “Exorcisms aren’t just done according to the rules of the ritual.”
Rivas took the Vatican line, saying it was no exorcism but that Francis merely said a prayer to free the man from the devil.
“Since no one heard what he said, including me who was right there, you can say he did a prayer for liberation but nothing more,” Rivas wrote on his Facebook page, which was confirmed by his religious order, the Legionaries of Christ.
Fueling the speculation that Francis did indeed perform an exorcism is his frequent reference to Satan in his homilies — as well as an apparent surge in demand for exorcisms among the faithful despite the irreverent treatment the rite often receives from Hollywood.
Who can forget the green vomit and the spinning head of the possessed girl in the 1973 cult classic “The Exorcist”?
In his very first homily as pope on March 14, Francis warned cardinals gathered in the Sistine Chapel the day after he was elected that “he who doesn’t pray to the Lord prays to the devil.”
He has since mentioned the devil on a handful of occasions, most recently in a May 4 homily when in his morning Mass in the Vatican hotel chapel he spoke of the need for dialogue — except with Satan.
“With the prince of this world you can’t have dialogue: Let this be clear!” he warned.
Experts said Francis’ frequent invocation of the devil is a reflection both of his Jesuit spirituality and his Latin American roots, as well as a reflection of a Catholic Church weakened by secularization.
“The devil’s influence and presence in the world seems to fluctuate in quantity inversely proportionate to the presence of Christian faith,” said the Rev. Robert Gahl, a moral theologian at Rome’s Pontifical Holy Cross University. “So, one would expect an upswing in his malicious activity in the wake of de-Christianization and secularization” in the world and a surge in things like drug use, pornography and superstition.
In recent years, Rome’s pontifical universities have hosted several courses for would-be exorcists on the rite, updated in 1998 and contained in a little red leather-bound booklet. The rite is relatively brief, consisting of blessings with holy water, prayers and an interrogation of the devil in which the exorcist demands to know the devil’s name, how many are present and when they will leave the victim.
Only a priest authorized by a bishop can perform an exorcism, and canon law specifies that the exorcist must be “endowed with piety, knowledge, prudence and integrity of life.”
While belief in the devil is consistent with church teaching, the Holy See does urge prudence, particularly to ensure that the victim isn’t merely psychologically ill.
The Rev. Giulio Maspero, a Rome-based systematic theologian who has witnessed or participated in more than a dozen exorcisms, says he’s fairly certain that Francis’ prayer on Sunday was either a full-fledged exorcism or a more simple prayer to “liberate” the young man from demonic possession.
He noted that the placement of the pope’s hands on the man’s head was the “typical position” for an exorcist to use.
“When you witness something like that — for me it was shocking — I could feel the power of prayer,” he said in a phone interview, speaking of his own previous experiences.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, sought to temper speculation that what occurred was a full-fledged exorcism. While he didn’t deny it outright — he said Francis hadn’t “intended” to perform one — he stressed that the intention of the person praying is quite important.
Late Tuesday, the director of TV2000, the television of the Italian bishops’ conference, went on the air to apologize for the earlier report.
“I don’t want to attribute to him a gesture that he didn’t intend to perform,” said the director, Dino Boffo.
That said, Francis’ actions and attitude toward the devil are not new: As archbishop of Buenos Aires, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio frequently spoke about the devil in our midst.
In the book “Heaven and Earth,” Bergoglio devoted the second chapter to “The Devil” and said in no uncertain terms that he believes in the devil and that Satan’s fruits are “destruction, division, hatred and calumny.”
“Perhaps its greatest success in these times has been to make us think that it doesn’t exist, that everything can be traced to a purely human plan,” he wrote.
Italian newspapers noted that the late Pope John Paul II performed an exorcism in 1982 — near the same spot where Francis prayed over the young disabled man Sunday.

American Jews Worry About Declining Religiosity Among Young

Jerome Socolovsky ("Voice of America," December 18, 2013)

Washington — During the recent holiday of Hanukkah, a 9-meter tall menorah - the maximum height allowed by Jewish law - stood behind the White House.
Two Orthodox rabbis, hoisted aloft in a bucket crane, lit the candles, as a U.S. Air Force band played traditional songs, and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman relayed a “Happy Hanukkah” from the president to a small crowd that assembled despite the bitter cold and rain.
The weather did not dampen the spirits of Jews who feel that America has treated them better than most countries in their long and often troubled history. Having a giant Jewish symbol alongside the White House Christmas tree seemed like additional proof of America’s welcome.
Many Jews still have a feeling of vulnerability, though, and a major new survey by the Pew Research Center has rekindled worries about assimilation.
Provocative survey
The survey, titled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” indicates they have declined as a share of the U.S. population - from about 3 percent in the 1950s to less than 2 percent now.
It also suggests they are becoming less observant, with 32 percent of young Jewish adults describing themselves as “having no religion” and instead identifying on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.
Survey director Alan Cooperman acknowledges that the findings have triggered alarm.
“The level of interest in this from the Jewish community is greater than I’ve seen in any previous survey that we’ve done,” he said, adding that there is particular concern that young Jews are less likely than their parents to join a synagogue or support Israel.
“Surveys do not predict the future,” Cooperman said, “but it does raise the question, are those younger Jews going to become more attached to Israel as they get older? Or is the American Jewish population going to become less attached to Israel?”
Jewish hertiage
Around 58 percent of Jews are marrying out of the faith and, Cooperman noted, “intermarriage is correlated with lower religiosity.”
Still, Cooperman said Jews are admired by almost all religious groups in America. “Even many Christian groups indicate warmer feelings toward Jews than they do toward other Christian groups in the United States,” he said.
Vice President Joe Biden - a Catholic - recently praised Jews for their contributions to American culture and society, and their key roles in movements for justice and equality.
“The truth is that Jewish heritage, Jewish culture, Jewish values are such an essential part of who we are that it’s fair to say that Jewish heritage is American heritage,” he said, noting that one out of every three American Nobel laureates has been Jewish.
Still, many Jews worry that influence may be on the wane.
Heidi Lamar grew up in the liberal Reform Jewish movement and later turned to Orthodoxy. She believes the liberal branches of her faith have no future because of intermarriage and low birth rates.
“I believe that you’re going to see Reform and Conservative Judaism just dying out,” she said after watching a presentation of the survey at a local community center.
It carried a different lesson for Conservative Rabbi Marvin Bash. “It indicates how much more we have to try to develop committed Jews,” he said.

Miami chiropractic office must quit making its staff practice Scientology following complaint

Lance Dixon ("Miami Herald," December 19, 2013)

A handful of employees — now ex-employees — of a South Florida chiropractic office say they got more than a paycheck for their labors.
The workers say they were force-fed an indoctrination in the rituals of Scientology, the controversial religion that counts such celebrities as Tom Cruise and John Travolta among its members. Those rituals, the workers complained, included occasionally having to sit perfectly still in a spare room at the office, facing one another for an eight-hour staredown — as well as yelling at ashtrays and talking to the walls.
They also had to devour the books of the late L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, including his seminal work, Dianetics, the complaint alleged.
The result of their complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: one of the more unusual employment-discrimination squabbles to come along in South Florida — resolved when the business signed a consent decree agreeing to pay $170,000 and to quit trying to dictate its employees’ religious beliefs.
Dynamic Medical Services, with offices in South Miami and Hialeah, says it never did any such thing, but says it is settling to avoid the hassle.
“We deny all of the allegations brought against Dynamic Medical in the EEOC case. However, given the expense to litigate these types of things, we made a business decision to try and resolve it,” Dynamic said in a statement.
Four former employees of Dynamic — Norma Rodriguez, Maykel Ruz, Rommy Sanchez and Yanileydis Capote — alleged that their employer forced them to participate in activities that involved Scientology, and to study the religion on a daily basis or face consequences.
Beatriz Andre, an attorney with the EEOC, said Dynamic had the First Amendment right to express religious ideas, but not to mandate them for others.
Andre said it is far more common for complaints to involve employees looking to engage in religious activity in the workplace and their employers attempting to curb that.
Sanchez and Rodriguez said their decisions to go against the mandate cost them their jobs.
Sanchez said she was fired in 2010 after enduring years of courses in Scientology from books written by Hubbard, and after participating in various exercises.
The complaint said that Sanchez was required to attend church and read Hubbard’s The Way to Happiness and Dianetics: Original Thesis over the course of several months. She also allegedly went through an Electropsychometer treatment, described on the Scientology website as a “religious artifact” that “measures the spiritual state or change of state of a person.”
Dennis Nobbe, Dynamic’s owner, told Sanchez that he wanted her to be “purified.” When Sanchez expressed concerns, she was told, “Remember you work for Dynamic and Nobbe is paying for this,” according to the complaint.
She went along with the “purification” process, which required her to sit in a sauna for five hours and take 20 “vitamin” pills on a daily basis, the complaint said. Even after a fainting spell, she was required to return to the sauna.
Sanchez said she was fired months later, after she stopped attending the church.
Rodriguez also claimed that she was discharged in 2010 after she refused to go to a church of Scientology. She explained to her supervisor that she was a Jehovah’s Witness.
The EEOC said Rodriguez was made to do exercises like walking up to someone in a shopping mall, stopping them and staring at them without speaking. She also attended courses at a church of Scientology on a weekly basis.
The two other plaintiffs, Ruz and Capote, eventually resigned from the company.
Andre said that initially dozens of other employees were interviewed, but they declined to join the complaint. She added that some of the employees, both management and rank-and-file, were practicing Scientologists and felt that the exercises were business as usual.
If a court approves the consent decree, Dynamic will be subject to further action from the court if employees allege more discrimination. The decree would also establish a policy against discrimination and require all workers to receive anti-discrimination training.
“Any time an employee asks for reasonable accommodation for religious purposes, Dynamic has to report it to the EEOC,” Andre said.
Dynamic is listed as a member of the World Institute of Scientology Enterprises. WISE, in its president’s message is described as “a fellowship of thousands of business people across the globe who recognize that the organizational and management principles developed by author L. Ron Hubbard have application to all businesses.”

Faith healing couple appear in court

Kyle Odegard ("Albany Democrat-Herald," December 21, 2013)

An Albany couple facing manslaughter charges appeared in court on Friday morning, and were scheduled for a final resolution conference on Feb. 19.
Travis and Wenona Rossiter are accused of not providing adequate medical care for their 12-year-old daughter, who died in February.
They are members of the Church of the First Born, a fundamentalist sect that believes in faith healing rather than medical treatment.
The court set a deadline of Feb. 12 for discovery, motions and independent medical testing in the case.
More than 15 people were in attendance to support the Rossiters during the hearing.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Ellen Davis unearths an agrarian view of the Bible


Yonat Shimron ("The Washington Post," October 29, 2013)

Durham, N.C. — With her gray hair tied neatly in a bun and her wire-rimmed glasses perched thoughtfully on her nose, Ellen Davis looks the part of a distinguished Bible scholar.
Her resume certainly reads like one — a Ph.D. from Yale University and teaching appointments at Union Theological Seminary, Virginia Theological Seminary, Yale and now Duke Divinity School.
Yet despite the traditional cast, Davis is leading a quiet revolution. For the past 20 years, she has been at the vanguard of theologians studying the biblical understanding of care for the land.
Her groundbreaking book, “Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible,” is considered a classic, and she travels widely to speak at churches and conferences about the role of agriculture and the ethics of land use in the Bible.
Her work makes the case that Christian theologians have for too long focused narrowly on the spiritual component of Scripture and in the process have overlooked the Bible’s material concerns.
Speaking to some 30 church members as part of a Sunday morning Creation Care series at the Chapel of the Cross Episcopal Church in nearby Chapel Hill, she focused on Genesis 1. She read aloud from the Bible and pointed out that God blesses nonhuman creatures first.
“It is not all about us,” said Davis, 63. “God is establishing a genuine relationship with creatures of sea and sky.”
This point — that the Bible does not separate human life from nonhuman life and that God cares for all creation — is consistent throughout her writings.
But neither does Davis shirk from the one passage that has embittered so many environmental activists and offered proof text to those who would deplete the Earth’s resources — God’s command to humankind in Genesis 1:28 to “subdue” the Earth and have “dominion” over its creatures.
While she does not deny that human beings have a distinct role in the Bible, she believes that special role carries special responsibility.
“The notion that the God who created heaven and earth does not care that we do damage to the heavens and the earth is completely incoherent,” said Davis, an Episcopalian. “We are answerable to God for how we use the physical order to meet our physical needs.”
Whether in church or from the Gothic limestone edifice of her divinity school office, Davis is spreading the gospel of care for God’s creation. In her personal life (she does not drive, and she buys much of her produce locally at a farmers market) and in her professional life, Davis is making sure God’s blessings in Genesis 1 do not turn into human-made curses.
It was a graduate assistant who led her down this path, more than 20 years ago.
The assistant was helping her compose a final exam for an Old Testament course she was teaching at Yale and suggested she include a question about the Bible’s view of land.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because you talk about it all the time,” he answered.
With that small seed of awareness, Davis began combing the stacks at the library to find out more about agriculture and to search the Scriptures for an ethic of land care.
The assistant’s question was timely because Davis had just returned from a trip to her native California, where a friend took her for a drive through Sonoma County. She was disturbed to find highways running though what she remembered from her childhood as farmland.
“That was grievous to me,” she said. “I came back to New Haven in shock. I was approaching 40, and I realized the changes that had taken place over the four decades of my life were drastic, uncontained and unsustainable.”
She thought she would have to dig for a few pertinent morsels scattered through the pages of the Bible. Instead, she found the Bible’s concern for an ethic of sustainability popped up everywhere she looked.
Those passages consisted of a key insight: Human communities cannot thrive apart from the health of nonhuman communities — land, water, animals and plants. Just as Adam is made from “adama,” or soil, so the one depends on the other.
“A lot of people in the creation care movement are convinced of environmental issues on the grounds of science or human rights,” said Fred Bahnson, director of the Food, Faith and Religious Leadership Initiative at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity. “She’s coming at it from the other direction and saying care for the land is tied up with our relationship with God. It’s not a side issue.”
Indeed, for Davis, care of the land is the most reliable index of the health of God’s covenant with the people of Israel.
As she wrote: “When humanity or the people of Israel, is disobedient, thorns and briars abound; rain is withheld; the land languishes and mourns. Conversely, the most extravagant poetic images of loveliness show a land lush with growth.”
Jesus, too, spoke often of the earth — of separating the wheat from the chafe, of faith the size of mustard seeds and parables of barren fig trees and seeds falling on rocky ground.
It is a testament to her work that farmers and agrarians sing her praises. Wendell Berry, poet, farmer and environmental activist, wrote the introduction to her book.
Frederick L. Kirschenmann, fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and president of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., is a fan, too.
Too often, he said, Christians think they have it all figured out.
“As Ellen has pointed out, there are whole sections (of the Bible) that describe how we should relate to land — that we don’t actually own it,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to care for it and pass it on to future generations.”
In recent years, Davis has devoted her energies to building up the faculty of Duke Divinity School with others who share her environmental consciousness.
“We have been led to think agriculture was not intellectually interesting; it’s not worth discussing because we’ve taken care of it,” she said. “A lot of my work has been to reverse this way of thinking.”
To that end, she was instrumental in recruiting Norman Wirzba, a professor of theology and ecology, and has helped graduate students pursue doctorates examining Scriptures in relation to the environment.
Daniel Stulac is one of those students. A farmer, he worked in Rwanda for two years doing agricultural development for the nonprofit group Partners in Health. He came to Duke because he wanted to marry agricultural concerns with biblical studies.
“A lot of scholars talk of the world of the Bible in terms of sociopolitical or economic movements or law or religious activities,” said Stulac. “What Ellen did that is so revolutionary is talk about the Bible in terms of agriculture. The world of the Bible was inhabited by farmers. She was one of the first people I encountered who showed how that world was refracted theologically through the Bible.”
Despite the enormous environmental challenges, Davis said she is encouraged by students such as Stulac and by church members who are beginning to open up to the subject.
It used to be that when Davis was invited to talk to church groups and discussed care of the land, people would say, “We thought you were going to talk about something theological.”
Nowadays, she said, church members understand the centrality of land use and its connection to the environmental crisis. At the very least, she said, “people don’t doubt the connection can be drawn.”

The Talmud: Why has a Jewish law book become so popular?


William Kremer ("BBC News," October 29, 2013)

The Talmud, the book of Jewish law, is one of the most challenging religious texts in the world. But it is being read in ever larger numbers, partly thanks to digital tools that make it easier to grasp, and growing interest from women - who see no reason why men should have it to themselves.
Step into the last carriage of the 07:53 train from Inwood to Penn Station in New York and you may be in for a surprise. The commuters here are not looking at their phones or checking the value of their shares, but peering down at ancient Hebrew and Aramaic text and discussing fine points of Judaic law.
It's a study group on wheels, and the book absorbing their attention in between station announcements is the Talmud - one of the most challenging and perplexing religious texts in the world. The group started 22 years ago, to help Long Island's Jewish commuters find their way through the "book", which stretches to well over 10 million words across 38 volumes.
When someone asked Einstein, shortly before his death, what he would do differently if he could live his life again, he replied without hesitation: "I would study the Talmud."
It contains the foundations of Halakha - the religious laws that dictate all aspects of life for observant Jews from when they wake in the morning to when they go to sleep at night. Every imaginable topic is covered, from architecture to trapping mice. To a greater extent than the other main Jewish holy book, the Torah, the Talmud is a practical book about how to live.
"The laws are very, very relevant to everyday life," says Eliezer Cohen, a real estate manager who organises the classes on the train with a couple of other amateur scholars. "Many times, I go to the office afterwards and I'll get questions on current events or in business and I'll say, 'Oh, we just learnt that today in the Talmud.' It's a blueprint for life."
But the Talmud is perhaps better described as a prompt for discussion and reflection, rather than a big book of Do's and Don'ts.
"The Talmud is really about the conversation and the conversation never ends," says Rabbi Dov Linzer, of the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah School in New York. It is a distillation not just of oral law, but also the debates and disagreements about those laws - with different rabbinic sources occupying a different space on the Talmudic page. Mixed in with it all are folk stories and jokes.
At one time, tackling this most forbidding of texts was restricted to male scholars ready to devote themselves to prolonged study in a yeshiva or religious school. Then, in 1923, a rabbi named Meir Shapiro introduced a study regime known as daf yomi, or "page-a-day". Under the supervision of a teacher or a fellow student who has prepared in advance, students read through two facing pages of Talmud and commentary, try to work out the meaning and discuss the implications for their lives.
When the commuters of Long Island struggle over a difficult passage of Talmud, they know that tens of thousands of Jews all over the world are on the same page. And when he travels abroad, Eliezer Cohen can usually find a local group to continue his studies. On one trip to Jerusalem, he even encountered a man who, like him, taught the daily reading on his way to work (although on a bus, rather than a train).
Going through the text a page a day, the book takes seven-and-a-half years to complete - a moment that is eagerly anticipated and celebrated with an event called Siyum Hashas.
Attendance levels at Siyum Hashas events illustrate the Talmud's growing popularity. In 1975, the completion of the seventh cycle was marked by an event in New York's Manhattan Center with 5,000 attendees. In 1990, some 20,000 people in the US took part in the event and in 2012, at the completion of the 12th cycle, all 90,000 seats at the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey sold out for the event.
"It's clearly exploded in the last 10, 20 years, I think mostly through the number of people involved in the daf yomi project," says Dov Linzer.
And with each daf yomi cycle, the Talmud gets more accessible. Modern students can avail themselves of podcasts and round-robin emails from top scholars, and discuss difficult passages in online chat-rooms. A big moment came in 2005, with the publication of the first complete English-language edition of the work for more than 50 years, the Schottenstein edition. But there is no need to lug a giant volume around with you - the publisher, ArtScroll, is one of a number of organisations to have launched a Talmud app.
Since its launch last year, users have made around 15 million downloads, mostly of entire Talmudic volumes, Mayer Pasternak, director of Artscroll's Digital Talmud, told the BBC. To put that in perspective, the Jewish world population is thought to be a little under 14 million.
Pasternak says the Talmud is peculiarly suited to a digital treatment.
"It's a web of interconnected ideas and thoughts and commentaries," he says. "In one place something might be very poorly elaborated and you'll find in another place in the Talmud it's discussed at length - there's a constant cross-referencing process. We have about a million links in the digital app and we have a team of scholars putting the links in."
He adds that a social shift is under way. "A lot of the people that are interacting with us are women," he says. "It's obvious that they've heard about the Talmud and they're studying the Talmud."
For many Orthodox Jews, Talmudic study by women is seen as at best unnecessary and at worst, highly undesirable.
Gila Fine, editor-in-chief of religious publisher Maggid Books in Jerusalem, recalls that in her Orthodox school girls were not taught the Talmud. "As a teenager, I would often have these religious debates with my counterparts about various things in Judaism," she recalls. "And every single such argument ended with one of the boys throwing at me: 'Oh it's in the Talmud - you wouldn't know.' And that was it! I could never win an argument ever, because it stopped beyond the covers of this book, which I could not enter."
When she was 17, she secretly pulled a volume of Talmud down from her father's shelf, but was too scared to open it. "I stood there waiting for that lightning bolt to strike me down," she says. It was only later on, when Fine was at a progressive women's seminary, that she read the book properly.

The Rise of Pop Culture in Religious Studies


A. David Lewis ("Publishers Weekly," October 28, 2013)


If academic conferences and scholarly panels give a glimpse of books to come, then the program for the 2013 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion signals the continuing rise of popular culture as a topic in religious studies. The AAR conference, in conjunction with the Society of Biblical Literature’s (SBL) own yearly event, will take over the Baltimore Convention Center just before Thanksgiving, November 23-26. Many of the religion scholars and practitioners of nearly every religion in attendance this year will be speaking the same language--the vernacular of popular culture.
The AAR won’t ever be confused with the Popular Culture Association—the next conference of that nationwide, scholarly association focused on American culture is not until April 2014—but television, film, music, and comic books are not far from the minds of AAR members these days. The Theopoetics group, devoted to the critical study of faith intertwining with people’s experience of art, aims to examine Scandal, ABC’s popular political thriller; the Contemporary Pagan Studies group, known for its focus on the natural world, enters dark movie theaters to look at the film version of the YA novel Beautiful Creatures (Little, Brown, 2009). Perusing the AAR program book, attendees will note a number of “pop”-centered panels and discussions dotting the long weekend, some in overlapping time slots. See “Critical Approaches to Hip-Hop and Religion” or go to “Religion and Science Fiction”? If conference-goers choose “Hip-Hop,” they can catch discussions of Battlestar Galactica or Lost on the SBL roster too.
Publishers who will be promoting and selling their books in the AAR/SBL Exhibit Hall have taken note. The staid and formal Bible commentaries and other scholarly books are still there, but now they’re just one shelf away from Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs (Baylor, Aug.) by Brett Robinson or Popcultured: Thinking Christianly about Style, Media and Entertainment by Steve Turner (InterVarsity Press, June). Presses like Bloomsbury look at religious themes graphic novels--Graven Images (2010); Do the Gods Wear Capes? (2011)—alongside titles like Pop Cult: Religion and Popular Music (2010) and The Sacred and Cinema (2012). In just the past twelve months, Routledge has been stocking its list with works such as Understanding Religion and Popular Culture (2012), Digital Religion (2012), and Bible and Cinema (Oct.).
The AAR’s attention to popular culture crosses all sorts of borders, from the international to the cyber-spatial. The Religion in South Asia section and the Religion, Film, and Visual Culture group are combining forces for a four-part panel on Bollywood and religion. Religion, Film, and Visual Culture is also teaming with the AAR’s “official” Religion and Popular Culture group for an analysis of the Coen Brothers’ works “as moral critiques of American spiritual and ethical values,” according to the panel description. The Religion, Media, and Culture group will dedicate a full session to “Reflections on Playing with Religion in Digital Gaming,” a flexible, fertile sub-field that has already spawned books such as eGods: Faith versus Fantasy in Computer Gaming by Williams Sims Bainbridge (Oxford University Press, Mar.), Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games by Kevin Schut (Brazos Press, Jan.), and the upcoming Playing with Religion in Digital Games from Heidi A. Campbell and Gregory P. Grieve (Indiana University Press, 2014).
Few say it better, or have watched the rise of the popular in scholarly religion more closely than Megan Goodwin, Elon University visiting assistant professor of religious studies. “Popular culture plays a significant role in shaping public awareness of and opinions about minority religions,” she says. Goodwin will moderate for the first time a combined Mormon Studies Group and Religion and Popular Culture Group panel. “Scholarly consideration of popular culture is a crucial component of contemporary religious studies,” she says. “I'm gratified to see popular culture and religion evolving as an interdisciplinary conversation.”

Monday, September 2, 2013

Clergy At Higher Risk Of Depression And Anxiety, Study Finds

Katherine Bindley ("Huffington Post," August 29, 2013)

Clergy are often relied upon to guide others through difficult times, but a new study has found that the very nature of their work could put them at greater risk of developing depression and anxiety themselves.
Researchers from the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School interviewed over 1,700 United Methodist pastors by phone and through online surveys, and found that the instances of depression were 8.7 percent and 11.1 percent, respectively, compared to the average national rate of 5.5 percent.
"It's concerning that such a high percentage of clergy may be depressed while they are trying to inspire congregations, lead communities and social change ventures, even just trying to do counseling of their own parishioners," said Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, the Clergy Health Initiative's research director. "These are responsibilities that you would really want a mentally healthy person be engaged in, and yet it may be the challenges of those responsibilities that might be driving these high rates of depression."
Other occupations that involve a strong focus on providing care for others, such as those in nursing and social work fields, have also been tied to above-average rates of depression.
According to Proeschold-Bell, several factors are at work that make clergy more vulnerable to depression and anxiety. For one thing, pastors feel they've been called to their work by God and can perceive the stakes of their job as higher than other occupations as a result.
"If I have a bad day doing research, I can go home and relax and start again tomorrow," said Proeschold-Bell. "A clergy person goes home after a long and hard day and they are questioning themselves: 'Did I take the right course of action? Did I do what God wanted me to do?'"
In any given week, clergy are also likely to experience many more emotional highs and lows than the average person.
"They're literally holding the weddings and the funerals," said Proeschold-Bell.
On top of that, pastors can have high expectations of themselves, which can lead to pushing through work even if they're sick or feeling down. Because congregants, too, have high expectations for those who lead their churches, the pressure on clergy ends up coming from multiple sources.
Given the circumstances surrounding a life of work in ministry, Steven Scoggin, president of CareNet, a network of pastoral counseling centers based in North Carolina, said that the recent findings don't come as a surprise.
"There is a sense that they should be able to handle more because they're a person of faith," said Scoggin. "It's not really embraced well by congregations for clergy to be transparent and vulnerable with their struggles."
Scoggins's organization provided 40,000 hours of counseling last year, 15 percent of which went to helping clergy.
Oftentimes, Scoggins said, depression and anxiety are the result of clergy not being able to separate the success or failure of their church from their own identity. An important step in helping them cope, he argued, would be an increased focus on preparing for the mental struggles they are likely to face before they actually take on the role of leading a church.
"We could do more for them early in their development, in their seminary education, to have better boundaries emotionally and psychologically," Scoggin said. "I think it is very much a self-care issue."
Proeschold-Bell noted that parishioners can play a role in helping to ease the stresses on their pastors by remembering that clergy take negative feedback very personally.
"I think that parishioners should be very thoughtful about their criticisms," she said.

Atheism a creed that needs the same religious protections of Christianity and Islam: Ontario Human Rights Tribunal

Tristin Hopper ("The National Post," August 28, 2013)

Atheism is a creed deserving of the the same religious protections as Christianity, Islam, and other faiths, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal has ruled in a new decision.
“Protection against discrimination because of religion, in my view, must include protection of the applicants’ belief that there is no deity,” wrote David A. Wright, associate chair of the commission, in an August 13 decision.
The ruling was spurred by a complaint from self-described secular humanist Rene Chouinard, who was opposing the District School Board of Niagara’s policy regarding the distribution of Gideon bibles.
Since 1964, as in the rest of Canada, the Gideons had offered free red Bibles to Grade 5 students in the district—provided the students had first obtained parental consent.
Three years ago, in a protest move, Mr. Choinard, a Grimsby, Ont. father of two school-age children, offered to similarly distribute the Atheist text “Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children.”
When, as Mr. Chouinard expected, the board rejected his offer, he took his case to the Human Rights Tribunal, alleging that the school district has “discriminated against them … because of creed.”
The District School Board of Niagara has since updated their policy to welcome the distribution of other religious texts, so long as the religion is included in the Ontario Multifaith Information Manual, a periodically updated book detailing the beliefs, holy books and dietary restrictions of groups ranging from Hare Krishnas to to Rastafarians.
So far, no other religious group aside from the Gideons has taken the school board up on the offer and, as the manual does not include atheists or other non-believers, Mr, Chouinard’s proposal remained ineligible.
For that reason, on August 13th the Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the policy was biased.
“The policy was discriminatory because its definition of acceptable materials violated substantive equality by excluding the kinds of materials central to many creeds,” reads the decision.
Not only did it block Atheist texts, wrote the Tribunal, but texts by Falun Gong and other “emerging or non-traditional creeds.” The decision also noted that some creeds, such as Native Spiritual Beliefs, do not even have texts.
Even some Christian texts, if they were not deemed sacred enough, were banned by the policy.
“The restriction to sacred or foundational texts excludes some creeds and is therefore discriminatory,” read the ruling.
Throughout, Mr. Chouinard has maintained that his intention was not to put bundles of “Just Pretend,” a book that treats God as a make-believe figure, into the hands of schoolchildren — but rather to critique the current policy.
“We believe that if non-theistic materials were distributed in an Ontario Public School … people would insist that the Public School system is not the place for people with a religious agenda; and that is exactly our point!” he wrote in a letter to the school council.
Ultimately, the Human Rights Tribunal had no objection to the Gideons distributing bibles, provided that “participation is optional” and that all creeds were included under school policy.
“If [the school board] is prepared to distribute permission forms proposing the distribution of Christian texts to committed atheists, it must also be prepared to distribute permission forms proposing the distribution of atheist texts to religious Christians,” wrote Mr. Wright.
Under a Human Rights Tribunal Order, if the school board wants to continue to allow the distribution of Gideon bibles, it has six months to draw up a new policy “permitting distribution of creed and religious publications in its schools.”

Most Americans Want the Bible in Public Schools

Nicola Menzie ("The Christian Post," August 28, 2013)

"The State of the Bible 2013" survey conducted by Barna Group on behalf of the American Bible Society has found that two-thirds of Americans think it is important for public schools to include in their curriculum values based on the Bible.
Not only do 66 percent of U.S. adults think teaching the Bible in schools is important, but a whopping 75 percent are of the opinion that teaching about the Bible in public schools could help reinforce moral principles — a viewpoint shared by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. In general, 77 percent of those surveyed believe the morals and values of the nation are on a decline, and that a decline in Biblical literacy was one of the main causes (32 percent) in addition to the media's negative influence (29 percent) and "corruption from corporate greed" (25 percent).
There were reservations about endorsing a Bible-based curriculum, however, as nearly half (45 percent) of those who support the move were concerned that such a curriculum could end up favoring one religion over another. Another 32 percent were concerned of such a move possibly causing offense; 11 percent worried about children losing time from learning other subjects; and 9 percent found no valid reason to teach the Bible in schools.
In a public statement on "The State of the Bible 2013" survey, American Bible Society President Doug Birdsall suggested that students could benefit greatly from "the best selling book in history."
"While our intention may be to protect students from the influence of 'other people's' religion, the effect has been that we are raising a generation ignorant about the most influential book of all time," said Birdsall.
"The Bible" miniseries producer Mark Burnett wholeheartedly agrees. Burnett, who has also successfully produced "Survivor" and "The Voice," suggested in a February appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor" that the Bible's stories were common knowledge outside of the United States.
"I really, really believe the Bible should be taught in public schools," said Burnett. "It is embarrassing for young Americans to go overseas in their mid-twenties after college and do business in Rio de Janeiro or Berlin or Paris and not know who David and Goliath are."
Downey and his wife, Roma Downey (who also starred in "The Bible" series), penned a joint opinion article for The Wall Street Journal further defending their view on teaching the Bible in public schools.
"The Bible has affected the world for centuries in innumerable ways, including art, literature, philosophy, government, philanthropy, education, social justice and humanitarianism," the pair wrote. "One would think that a text of such significance would be taught regularly in schools. Not so. That is because of the 'stumbling block' (the Bible again) that is posed by the powers that be in America."
"It's time to change that, for the sake of the nation's children," they added. "It's time to encourage, perhaps even mandate, the teaching of the Bible in public schools as a primary document of Western civilization."
While the Supreme Court in 1962 (Engel v. Vitale) and 1963 (School District of Abington Township, Pennsylvania v. Schempp) concluded that state-sponsored prayer and mandatory Bible reading in schools violates the First Amendment, students are not prevented from using their own personal time to practice both activities. In addition, voluntary Bible literature and history courses are legally allowed in Arizona, Oklahoma, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
Perhaps reflective of concerns some have expressed about public schools implementing the Bible into their curriculum, People for the American Way, a liberal progressive advocacy group, found that in Florida history classes, many teachers had been "teaching the Good Book wrong," and notably from a Protestant Fundamentalist Christian perspective.
"The State of the Bible 2013" survey was conducted between Jan. 16-22, 2013, via phone with 1,005 adult participants and between Jan. 17-23, 2013, via online surveys with 1,078 adults.
The Christian Post spoke exclusively in March with the American Bible Society president about the annual survey. Read "2013 State of the Bible: Americans Say Morality Is Declining, Cite Lack of Bible Reading" for more details about the survey.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Indian state outlaws profiting on miracles, summoning 'ghosts'

Shivam Vij ("The Christian Science Monitor," August 26, 2013)

New Delhi - A new law against superstition and black magic in India's Maharashtra state has triggered a debate between religious groups who say that the state is interfering in personal faith, and rationalists who say religious malpractices violate human rights.
The law was hurriedly promulgated four days after Narendra Dabholkar, an activist who had been campaigning for it for a decade, was assassinated. Dr. Dabholkar headed the Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith, which has 180 branches across Maharashtra and has exposed many Hindu preachers purporting to conduct miracles and black magic.
“We will challenge the law as it is ambiguous and interferes with personal faith,” says Abhay Vartak of the Santan Sanstha, a Hindu organization. “The law does not define much of what it outlaws – ghosts, for instance. The government itself is not clear whether ghosts exist! And if belief in ghosts is to be outlawed, then what about the Hindu Scripture the Atharva Veda, which says a lot about how to get rid of ghosts who come to inhabit a body?” he asks.
The law specifically outlaws 12 practices, making them punishable by a jail term of seven months to seven years. Of the 12 clauses, two relate to belief in ghosts. The first one forbids recommending violent and sexual practices for purging ghosts from the body – including drinking urine or stool, being tied with a rope or chain, and touching heated objects. It also outlaws creating fear by threatening to invite ghosts.
“The law has too many ’etceteras’ which will be used indiscriminately against private faith, and only against Hindus,” says Mr. Vartak of the Sanatan Sanstha.
Avinash Patil, acting president of the Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith, says that law does not mention any religion. “We are not against private faith, only the exploitation and violence that comes when blind faith is used publicly by seers, godmen, and tantriks,” says Mr. Patil.
Opponents of the bill are unable to point out problems with the specifics of most of the clauses – such as branding women as witches and making them walk without clothes and beating them; persuading people to substitute medical aid by tying threads or getting bitten by a snake, dog, or scorpion; threatening to bring evil upon someone through supernatural powers; claiming to change the sex of the fetus by inserting fingers in the womb; claiming that one's supernatural powers can help a woman get pregnant if she had sex with him; and claiming that a disabled person has supernatural powers and thus using them for commercial purposes.
However, one clause that religious groups are particularly objecting to is about the use of miracles for commercial exploitation. Critics say that if magicians can perform miracles in ticketed magic shows and if miracles could be attributed to Mother Teresa and Sufi saints, why should others be prevented?
“I don’t think it’s outlawing claiming miracles, but exploiting the poor by using them,” says lawyer Vrinda Grover.

Ex-Pope Benedict's 'Mystical Experience' Story Is False, Says His Personal Secretary

Alessandro Speciale ("The Huffington Post," August 26, 2013)

Vatican City - The personal secretary of former Pope Benedict XVI denied that the pontiff resigned as a consequence of a “mystical experience” in which God “told me” to step back from the papacy.
The Catholic news agency Zenit published a story on Aug. 19 reportedly based on the account of one of the former pope’s few visitors; Benedict is living in a refurbished monastery on the Vatican grounds.
According to the report, Benedict said he had decided to resign after what he described as a “mystical experience,” stressing that this shouldn’t be confused with a vision.
That experience sparked an “absolute desire” to dedicate his life exclusively to prayer, in a solitary relationship with God, Benedict reportedly said.
Zenit’s account received wide attention but was met with skepticism by people familiar with the former pope.
Speaking on Sunday (Aug. 25) to the Italian TV channel Canale 5, Benedict’s personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, said the Zenit report was “made up from alpha to omega.”
“There is nothing true in that story,” he added.
While continuing to serve as Benedict’s secretary in his retirement, Gaenswein also works with Pope Francis as Prefect of the Papal Household, charged with overseeing the staff who directly work with the new pope.
In the Canale 5 interview, Gaenswein described his role as that of a “bridge between the pope emeritus and the reigning pope.” He also assured that the two men have an “excellent” relationship.

Divide over religious exemptions on gay marriage

Rachel Zoll (AP, August 25, 2013)

The battle over gay marriage is heating up in the states, energizing religious groups that oppose same-sex relationships — but also dividing them.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court gave married gays and heterosexuals equal status under federal law, but did not declare a nationwide right for gays to marry, setting the stage for state-by-state decisions. So faith leaders are forming new coalitions and preparing for the legislative and courtroom battles ahead.
Yet, traditional religious leaders, their supporters and the First Amendment attorneys advising them are divided over strategy and goals, raising questions about how much they can influence the outcome:
— Several religious liberty experts say conservative faith groups should take a pragmatic approach given the advances in gay rights. Offer to stop fighting same-sex marriage laws in exchange for broad religious exemptions, these attorneys say. "If they need to get those religious accommodations, they're going to have to move now," said Robin Fretwell Wilson, a family law specialist at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Critics reject the idea as a premature surrender.
— Religious leaders lobbying for exemptions can't agree how broad they should be. A major difference is over whether for-profit companies should qualify for a faith-based exception.
— Some religious liberty advocates and faith leaders are telling houses of worship they could be forced to host gay weddings, with their clergy required to officiate. The Louisiana Baptist Convention is advising congregations to rewrite their bylaws to state they only allow heterosexual marriage ceremonies, and the Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious liberty group that opposes same-sex marriage, is advising the same. But legal experts across a spectrum of views on gay rights say it can't happen given strong First Amendment protections for what happens inside the sanctuary.
"A few people at both ends of the spectrum have talked about religion and religious freedom in a way that is really destructive," said Brian Walsh, executive director of the Ethics & Public Policy's American Religious Freedom program which has formed legislative caucuses so far in 18 states. "I think they've made it polarized and difficult to understand."
The issue of accommodating religious opponents has already been a sticking point in legislative battles. In Rhode Island and Delaware, disputes over broader religious exemptions led to the failure of some same-sex union bills. Both states went on to approve civil unions in 2011, then same-sex marriage this year. In New York, gay marriage became law only after Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state's top two legislators struck an eleventh-hour compromise on religious exemptions.
Still, advocates for stronger religious protections haven't won anything close to what they've sought in the 13 states and the District of Columbia where gay marriage has been recognized.
A few states have approved specific religious exemptions related to housing or pre-marital counseling, or benefits for workers in private, faith-based groups, such as the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, according to analysis by Fretwell Wilson. Most of the states have protected religiously affiliated nonprofits from potential government penalty for refusing to host same-sex marriage ceremonies.
The only other protection written into the laws is a provision First Amendment scholars consider redundant: All spell out that clergy are exempt from performing same-sex ceremonies and can't be sued for their refusal.
The overall result: a patchwork of regulation, with gaps that are likely to become the target of lawsuits. Massachusetts and Iowa, where same-sex marriage won recognition through the courts, have approved no enhanced religious exemptions related to the rulings.
The statehouse negotiations concern what, if any, exemptions religious believers should have in the public arena. Should a religious social service agency with government funding be required to legally recognize married same-sex couples in all circumstances? Should a congregation that makes money renting property to the public be required to allow gay wedding receptions in the space?
Some advocates go further, arguing religious accommodations should extend in some cases to individuals. In this view, owners of a mom-and-pop bakery that makes wedding cakes should be exempt. So too should the county clerk who issues marriage licenses, as long as someone else in the clerk's office can step in easily and provide the service.
Many cities and states have anti-discrimination ordinances that include sexual orientation, setting up fines or other penalties for failing to comply. Absent an exemption, objectors may have to shut down their businesses or give up their jobs, religious leaders say. They argue losing your livelihood is too harsh a punishment for views on such a core religious issue as marriage.
But gay rights advocates say this argument puts too heavy a burden on gays and lesbians, and presents them with an unfair set of choices.
"In some states, the price of equality in marriage has been agreeing to give up protections against discrimination as part of the negotiations," said Jenny Pizer, senior counsel for the gay rights group Lambda Legal. "In ways, I think, other politically vulnerable groups are not required to pay that price."
Advocates for the exemptions don't agree on where they should go from here.
Nathan Diament, policy director for the Orthodox Union, which represents Orthodox Jewish congregations and has been a prominent voice on religious liberty issues, said his group hasn't taken a position on the religious rights of businesses or employers, but has advocated for broader religious exemptions for employees, such as a clerk who issues marriage licenses. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which in the last two years has made religious freedom a signature policy issue, believes any organization with faith objections, whether a for-profit corporation or a nonprofit agency, should be exempt.
Fretwell Wilson is among legal experts urging faith groups to be practical, in light of growing public support for gay relationships, and focus solely on securing exemptions, instead of trying to block a specific gay marriage law. She is part of an informal group of lawyers who have been drafting model language for exemptions to share with state lawmakers. These legal experts differ on whether same-sex marriage should be recognized, but agree on the potential risks to religious liberty.
"The religious community would have done much better to ask for protection for their religious liberty instead of trying to stop same-sex marriage and try to prevent it for everybody," said church-state expert Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia, who is recommending the more pragmatic course. "The more same-sex marriage seems inevitable, the less likely we are to see religious liberty protection in blue states."
But Matthew Franck, of the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank in Princeton, N.J., argued the only real protection for religious freedom is maintaining the traditional definition of marriage. He said same-sex marriage advocates are unlikely to tolerate for long any "deviations from the 'new normal' they wish to create," so he predicted religious exemptions granted now will eventually be repealed.
"We have not lost the fight for the truth about marriage, and surrendering the field is premature," Franck said. "I continue to hope that it will never finally be necessary, and I work to make that hope a reality."
Whatever strategy the faith groups choose, there's no sign gay rights advocates are prepared to make major concessions.
Jonathan Rauch, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is one of the very few gay-rights supporters publicly urging fellow advocates to be more magnanimous. He argues that offering religious accommodations makes sense politically.
"I think there's a real risk that we will overreach and set up the other side to portray itself as the victim if we decide we have to stamp out every instance of religious based anti-gay discrimination," Rauch said. "I also think that there's a moral reason. What the gay rights movement is fighting for is not just equality for gays but freedom of conscience to live openly according to their identity. I don't think we should be in the business of being as intolerant of others as they were to us."
Others reject such accommodations.
Rose Saxe, an ACLU senior staff attorney, said the call for a middle ground, "while trying to sound reasonable, is really asking for a license to discriminate." And the Rev. Darlene Nipper of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said religious groups have another choice: They can accept same-sex marriage.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The U.S.’s lagging commitment to religious freedom

Robert P. George and Katrina Lantos Swett ("The Washington Post," August 21, 2013)

Robert P. George is chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Katrina Lantos Swett is a vice chairwoman of the commission.

Although religious freedom is a pivotal human right, critical to national security and global stability, key provisions of the landmark International Religious Freedom Act are being neglected years after its passage. A number of studies demonstrates the link between freedom of religion and societal well-being, while its absence correlates closely with instability and violent religious extremism, including terrorism. Many governments, including those topping the U.S. foreign policy and security agendas, perpetrate or tolerate acts of religious repression, such as arbitrary detention, torture and murder.
The International Religious Freedom Act provides vital tools, including identifying and sanctioning the world’s worst violators. But over many years and different administrations, the executive branch has not employed them fully or in a timely manner. With a key deadline for action arriving this month, it is time to confront this unwise failure to act.
When the act was passed in 1998, it made the promotion of religious freedom an official U.S. foreign policy priority and established at the State Department an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The legislation also created a bipartisan and independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, on which we serve, to monitor this right worldwide and make policy recommendations to Congress, the secretary of state and the president.
Congress gave the legislation real teeth through a groundbreaking enforcement mechanism: requiring annual administration review and designation of “countries of particular concern,” defined as those governments engaging in or allowing “systematic, ongoing, egregious” violations.
While the law provides the administration with flexibility in how it will pressure those countries, the review and designation process is not discretionary. The law requires it. Whatever one’s view of appropriate sanctions for violators, there can be little disagreement on the imperative of bearing witness to abuses.
Unfortunately, neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have consistently designated countries that clearly meet the standard for offenders. The Bush administration issued several designations in its first term but let the process fall off track in its second. The Obama administration issued designations only once during its first term, in August 2011.
The result? Violators such as Egypt, Pakistan and Vietnam are escaping the accountability that the International Religious Freedom Act is meant to provide.
Even those nations currently designated as “countries of particular concern” could escape accountability if there are no designations this month; under the law, countries remain designated until removed, but any corresponding penalties expire after two years. Without new designations, sanctions attached in 2011 to Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea and Sudan will expire this month. And while those countries are subject to sanctions under other U.S. laws, allowing the International Religious Freedom Act’s sanctions authority to expire would send the disturbing message that the United States won’t implement its own law on religious freedom.
To be sure, the Obama administration has taken some positive steps. It created a State Department working group on religion and foreign policy and this month established a new faith-based office, both tasked with religious engagement.
Also this month, Secretary of State John Kerry announced a U.S. Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement. As our commission has recommended, promoting religious freedom is among the three key objectives of this engagement.
Engagement should be part of any strategy for the promotion of religious freedom. But what will move gross offenders to stop persecuting individuals if not the credible threat of consequences? By letting the process of designating offenders atrophy, the United States surrenders its leverage while creating a chilling precedent for other rights. If this process is allowed to wither, what will happen to similarly designed programs such as the tiered system of the Trafficking in Persons Report, which was modeled on this approach?
The process of designating countries of particular concern works when deployed as intended — that is, not as a single bludgeon but as a targeted tool. When diplomacy is combined with the prospect or reality of such designations and attendant sanctions or other specific diplomatic and related actions, repressive governments — including Vietnam and Turkmenistan — have made meaningful changes. Moreover, countries often consider such a designation a stigma and blow to their world standing. Because a designation of concern is rightly perceived as an important factor in a country’s relationships with the United States, it can create political will for reform where none otherwise would exist.
For the sake of freedom and security, it is time to apply the International Religious Freedom Act fully and the country designation process decisively. Congress has the right and the duty to press the executive branch to do so.

Beit Jimal monastery in Israel hit by suspected ultranationalist Jewish vandals

Ori Lewis (Reuters, August 21, 2013)

Vandals hurled a firebomb at the outer wall of a Roman Catholic monastery in Israel and daubed anti-Christian graffiti on it, a police spokeswoman said on Wednesday.
No damage was caused to the Beit Jimal monastery, near the town of Beit Shemesh, and no one was hurt, the spokeswoman, Luba Samri said.
She said the words “revenge” and “gentiles will perish” were painted in Hebrew on the wall, probably late on Tuesday.
“All lines of investigation are being looked at, including nationalistic motives,” Samri said.
Jewish ultranationalists are widely believed to have been behind the vandalism of several churches and mosques in Israel and the occupied West Bank in recent years.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim Says Traditional Shtreimel Fur Hats Desecrate God's Name Due To Animal Cruelty

("The Huffington Post," August 23, 2013)

Haredi Rabbi Schlomo Pappenheim made a surprising statement on Tuesday, when he called on Chassidim to abandon their traditional shtreimel hats, which are normally made out of real animal fur, in favor of synthetic versions. He couched his advice in traditional Jewish law, saying that the production of shtreimels disregards the law which prohibits causing animals needless pain (tza'ar ba'alei chayim).
Pappenheim went so far as to say that wearing a shtreimel today constitutes Chilul Hashem, or the desecration of God's name, due to the wide public awareness of the need to prevent cruelty to animals. “We live in an era in which people are more stringent, and they make a lot of noise about tza’ar ba’alei chayim. So we must stop this custom of hurting animals,” he said, according to Ma’ariv.
The shtreimel is a fur hat worn on Shabbat and other special occasions by Haredi men, such as after marriage. It is made of the tips of sable, mink, marten, or fox tails, and each hat is made up of about 30 animals. It can cost between $1,00 and $5,000.
Pappenheim is the chairman of Ha’edah Hacharedit, an anti-Zionist faction of Israel's Haredi public estimated to have between 50 and 100 thousand followers. He made his remarks at an animal rights conference which featured other prominent religious leaders.
"We should get to a point where people would be ashamed to wear anything but a synthetic shtreimel," he said.