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Religion Notes

"Religion Notes" Continued...

Issue: "Walk the Talk," Nov. 15, 1997

Prison ban lifted

Under pressure from Congress and religious groups, the federal Bureau of Prisons lifted a short-lived ban on donations of prayer books and other religious materials. The ban was imposed in September under a narrow interpretation of a new ethics rule at the Justice Department signed by Attorney General Janet Reno. The rule said no Justice employee "may solicit gifts or encourage the solicitation of gifts to the department" without Miss Reno's approval in advance. The measure was intended to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, a spokesman explained. However, federal prison officials interpreted the order to include religious donations intended for inmates. A week before the beginning of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, chaplains telephoned a Jewish prison outreach group. They said they had to return prayer books and ritual items they had previously ordered for Jewish inmate use during the holy days. Prison wardens now can accept donations worth up to $250. Beyond that, the assistant attorney general must review the donation.

Evangelist Billy Graham, who turns 79 this month, is still filling stadiums. Overflow crowds packed San Francisco's Cow Palace last month to hear him, and over 40,000 were on hand for each of two nights at the Oakland Coliseum. Earlier, record throngs greeted him at a stadium in San Jose. Aides described the more than 60 percent public response among young people from 12 to 18 in Oakland to Mr. Graham's appeal to turn to Christ as the highest in his 50 years of crusade evangelism. Over 1,400 churches from about 100 denominations joined in the three-city, eight-rally outreach crusade in the San Francisco Bay area.

PCUSA gay man allowed to keep office of elder

The Presbyterian Church (USA) regional Synod of the Covenant in Ohio ruled a homosexual holding the office of elder at Knox Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati may retain his ordination and office. The ruling reversed a decision by a Cincinnati presbytery judicial review commission. A Knox member had complained to the presbytery that the man admitted his homosexuality to a church group, and the church's directory lists him as living at the same address with another man. PCUSA law prohibits any "self-affirming, practicing homosexual person" from holding an ordained leadership position. As is customary with ordination candidates, Knox's leaders had asked the man if there was anything in his life that might prevent him from fulfilling his duty with integrity. He replied "no" and was ordained. In explaining its decision, the synod appeals court said Knox's leaders at no time were "able to conclude that a declaration of sexual orientation had been made."

Signed, sealed, and delivered

Bishops of the state Lutheran church in Denmark unanimously approved homosexual marriages but declined to permit separate wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples. Instead, homosexuals can have their marriages "sealed" as part of regular church services. Clergy in the church have been deeply divided over the issue since 1989, when Denmark became the first country to legalize civil marriages for homosexuals.

Golden Gate Baptist seminary will begin offering a master of theology degree via the Internet next fall. It may be the first such graduate school in the nation to do so, if the Southern Baptist school's accrediting agencies allow it. Under the three-year pilot plan approved by trustees last month, the degree program will consist of courses totaling 28 semester hours, a thesis, and weekly on-line dialogs among students and faculty on selected seminar topics. The course is designed to be completed in two to four years, Golden Gate officials said. More than 1,600 students are enrolled at the seminary's main campus in the hills north of San Francisco. The school also operates satellite campuses in southern California, Washington State, Arizona, and Colorado. The Washington, D.C.-based Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) recently established the Christian Distance Learning Institute as a resource center for member schools exploring ways to offer courses via the Internet. The ideal educational environment is on a Christian campus, "but distance learning is here to stay," CCCU president Robert Andringa said.

Texan Gary L. Bishop, a former Navy aviator with a career in corporate management, was named president of Mission Aviation Fellowship, based in Redlands, Calif. He succeeds Max Meyers, who led the group for 12 years. MAF, founded in 1946 by former World War II pilots, says it serves more than 500 Christian and humanitarian agencies with a fleet of 81 aircraft.

Heritage USA, the former PTL ministry headquarters and Christian theme resort founded by disgraced TV personality Jim Bakker, will close at the end of this month, officials said. Signature Hospitality Resources, the Malaysian corporation that bought the 600-acre complex in 1992 for $42.6 million, said it could not find an investor with deep enough pockets to continue operating the 501-room hotel and conference center. Mr. Bakker, convicted in 1987 of defrauding his followers, was paroled from prison in 1994. At its zenith, Heritage USA employed 2,000 people and hosted 6 million visitors a year.

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