In the News (January/February 2018)

“It’s against my religion.”

FEMA broadens churches’ access to disaster funds

Less than four months after President Trump suggested churches should be able to receive federal disaster relief funds, officials have changed federal policies to make it easier for religious institutions to qualify for such aid.

With lawsuits pending in Texas and Florida from churches and synagogues challenging the limits, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Jan. 2 that it is removing language in its rules that often disqualified religious groups from aid available to other nonprofits.

“Private nonprofit houses of worship will not be singled out for disfavored treatment within the community centers subcategory of nonprofit applicants,” FEMA Recovery Directorate Assistant Administrator Alex Amparo wrote in a new manual.

FEMA said religious institutions could now qualify as “community centers” eligible for disaster grants, although facilities primarily used for “political, athletic . . . recreational, vocational, or academic training” will still be barred from receiving support.

New Commandments monument moves forward

An Arkansas commission cleared the way for the installation of another Ten Commandments monument outside the state Capitol, after a prior marker was shattered when a man crashed his car into the stone less than 24 hours after it was put in place.

The Arkansas Capitol Arts and Grounds Commission signed off on the final design, which will include four concrete posts for the monument’s protection.

Chief Deputy Secretary of State Kelly Boyd said the commission will review the security of all monuments on Capitol grounds, which also include displays honoring firefighters, veterans and the nine students who desegregated Little Rock’s Central High School. The Little Rock Nine monument already includes concrete posts similar to the ones that will be placed with the Ten Commandments monument.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas said it plans to sue over the monument.

Religious aspects of Christmas declining

A Pew Research Center survey has found that most U.S. adults believe the religious aspects of Christmas are emphasized less now than in the past, and that relatively few Americans are bothered by this trend.

Also, a declining majority says religious displays such as nativity scenes should be allowed on government property.

There has been a noticeable decline in the percentage of U.S. adults who say they believe that biblical elements of the Christmas story reflect historical events that actually occurred.

Currently, 55 percent of U.S. adults say they celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. In 2013, 59 percent of Americans stated the same.

About 90 percent of adults say they celebrate the holiday, which is nearly identical to the share who said this in 2013.

South Africa outlaws single-religion schools

Single-religion schools have been outlawed in South Africa after a ruling  at the Johannesburg High Court.

Government-run schools may no longer promote themselves as subscribing to a single particular religion at the exclusion of others, the court ruled.

The Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig en Demokrasie (Organization for Religious Education and Democracy), or OGOD, which fights against religious indoctrination through public schools in South Africa, welcomed the judgment.

OGOD made the application against six predominantly Christian public schools to prevent them from taking part in 71 instances of religious conduct.

While the court did not grant the restraining order, it ruled the schools had breached a section of the Schools Act making it an offence to promote one religion and exclude others.

British want religion kept out of politics

Politics and religion should not mix, according to the British public, who want politicians to keep their personal faith to themselves.

A majority of British people believe that religion should also play a less prominent role in parliament, with bishops losing their automatic seats in the House of Lords, a YouGov survey found.

The prime minister, a vicar’s daughter, said that “faith guides me in everything I do,” while Tim Farron, a committed Christian, faced a barrage of questions over whether he believed gay sex to be sinful, as a result of which he felt he had to resign as Liberal Democratic leader.

Superintendent sued for preaching to students

A superintendent in Louisiana’s Webster Parish has refused to stop promoting Christianity at Lakeside Junior/Senior High School, so he is being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union.

On Dec. 18, the ACLU said it was suing Webster Parish Schools and Superintendent Johnny Rowland. As the ACLU reports, the school day at Lakeside starts with a morning prayer over the PA, read either by teachers or by student “volunteers.”

“Nearly every Lakeside school event features an official prayer,” the report continues. “Graduation services are held in churches and often resemble religious services.”

Christy Cole, the mother of K.C., an agnostic Lakeside student, said that when her husband confronted Rowland, he was immediately rebuffed.

“I’ll stop when someone makes me stop,” Rowland reportedly said.

The Coles’ complaint claims that “when K.C. started to stay seated during morning prayer, other students ridiculed her.” Later, “when K.C.’s parents stayed seated during graduation prayers, other parents hissed in disapproval. One of K.C.’s teachers also implied to the class that the bible must be taken literally and mocked her when she questioned him.”

Kentucky state rep. dies in apparent suicide

Kentucky state Rep. Dan Johnson died from a “probable suicide” two days after allegations arose that he had sexually abused a teenage girl at the church where he was a pastor. Johnson was found with a single gunshot wound to the head.

Johnson was accused by a woman of molesting her when she was 17 after a New Year’s party in 2012, according to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. That was followed by calls for Johnson’s resignation from leaders of both parties.

In a since-deleted post on Facebook, Johnson wrote “GOD knows the truth, nothing is the way they make it out to be. I cannot handle it any longer . . . BUT HEAVEN IS MY HOME.”

100 largest churches mostly led by white men

Church Clarity, a group that seeks to get churches to publicly disclose their stances on all manner of topics, recently published a detailed analysis of America’s 100 largest churches, based on information from Outreach Magazine, a Christian publication.

The study shows that 93 percent of America’s 100 largest churches are led by a white pastor. Only 7 out of the 100 of the churches on Outreach’s list are led by a person of color, yet nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population is made up of people of color.

Another statistic shows that only one of America’s 100 largest churches has a female pastor.

Nicole Crank of Faith Church in West Palm Beach, Fla., is the only woman, and she is listed as a co-pastor alongside her husband, David.

The study also found that there are no LGBTQ-affirming churches among the 100 largest churches in America. According to the analysis, just 35 percent of megachurches have clear LGBTQ+ policies, and 54 percent actually hide their positions deep inside their websites.

Appeals court rules bakers did discriminate

The Oregon Court of Appeals on Dec. 28 upheld a ruling of illegal discrimination and a $135,000 fine levied by Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian against the owners of a bakery who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple in 2013.

The appeals court rejected the contention from Aaron and Melissa Klein, the bakers, that being required to make that wedding cake violated their constitutional freedom of speech or religion.

“The Kleins seek an exemption based on their sincere religious opposition to same-sex marriage,” Judge Chris Garrett wrote in the opinion. “But those with sincere religious objections to marriage between people of different races, ethnicities or faiths could just as readily demand the same exemption.”

The ruling came as the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a similar case out of Colorado. During arguments in early December, the justices appeared closely divided on the issue, with observers predicting that Justice Anthony Kennedy could cast the deciding vote in a 5-4 split.