Little by little, SBC gets bigger
Church membership in America's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, reached 15,891,514 in 1997, a 1.3 percent increase over the preceding year, according to an annual analysis by the SBC publishing agency in Nashville, Tenn. The number of churches increased by less than 1 percent, to 40,887. They received more than $7 billion in income and gave over $936 million to missions. Morning worship attendance on a given Sunday was up by 6.6 percent, to 5.2 million. Contrary to popular perception, the typical SBC congregation is not a large one: The latter figure represents a theoretical average of only 127 per church. In reality, although some SBC churches attract thousands or many hundreds on Sunday mornings, attendance at the majority is under 100.
A Brethren group in rural Minnesota that shuns modern technology fared better than the New Yorkers in U.S. Supreme Court deliberations. The high court rejected a challenge to a small school attended exclusively by 19 Brethren children in Vesta. It left in place an 8th Circuit appeals court ruling that the multi-age classroom involved did not violate the Constitution. The local school district had closed and sold the elementary school in Vesta in 1984. Its pupils were bused to another town 14 miles away. In 1991, Brethren member Lloyd Paskewitz bought the Vesta school building. He later offered to lease classroom space free if the school district would provide a teacher and supplies. The district signed a three-year lease, agreeing to operate the classroom and limit the use of TV and high-tech equipment. Although the school was open to any student, only Brethren children attended. Two state taxpayers filed suit, claiming the arrangement violated the Constitution's establishment clause. A federal district court agreed, saying the plan amounted to "state sponsorship" of religion. However, the appeals court in a 2-1 decision disagreed. It applied a legal standard known as the "Lemon test," based on the Supreme Court's Lemon vs. Kurtzman formula. Under it, government actions pass constitutional muster if they have a secular purpose, do not advance or inhibit religion, and avoid excessive entanglement with religion.
Scouts cast away
The Berkeley, Calif., city council voted 8-1 to end its policy of providing free dock space to the Sea Explorers, a local Boy Scouts of America unit. Because the Scouts' membership policy excludes homosexuals and atheists, "if we continue to give them the berths rent free, it means the government is sanctioning discrimination," one councilman told reporters. The free berths on San Francisco Bay had kept the cost of the Scouting program at under $10 per year each for several dozen Scouts. It will now cost $12,000 annually to rent the berths if the Scouts want to keep using them.
Pending a trial on the issue in July, a judge ordered Sheriff Andy Lee of Benton County, Ark., to remove a version of the Ten Commandments from the county jail booking area. Inmate Jamey Ashford in a lawsuit said the posting of the "Ten Benton County Jail Rules" violated his rights because they deal with how to think and act. One of the sheriff's commandments: "Remember the Sabbath day is a holy day for some detainees (i.e., Do not interfere with others' worship of Almighty God)." In a preliminary hearing, the judge said such language entangled the county in religion. Sheriff Lee in testimony said he believed the world and his jail would be better places "if we would obey those Ten Commandments and walk with the Lord." He said he decided to post the commandments after a jail-ministry program led to more than 100 conversions in the last few months.
Too uncool for school
Churches in New York City still are not allowed to hold worship services in the city's schools. The U.S. Supreme Court without comment last month refused to review a federal appeals court ruling that upheld a New York Board of Education policy prohibiting "religious services or religious instruction on school premises." The policy permits outside groups to use school facilities for a variety of other purposes, including "discussion" of religious topics.
At issue was a lawsuit filed by the Bronx Household of Faith, an evangelical church, challenging the policy after the congregation was denied permission to meet after hours in a middle school for weekly worship services. The church claimed the policy violates First Amendment protections of free speech and religion. But a federal district court and the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals sided with school officials. The appeals court described the school facility as a "limited public forum" open to outside organizations for a wide variety of civic and social uses. As long as any restrictions are "reasonable and viewpoint neutral," they are permissible, and the school policy meets that test, the court ruled.
Thirteen religious groups filed a brief with the high court supporting the church. They argued that the Supreme Court, in its landmark 1981 Widmar vs. Vincent decision, already had said that government officials cannot deny access to a community group solely because its religious speech includes worship and religious instruction. The groups ranged from the Christian Legal Society, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Focus on the Family to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Council of Churches of the City of New York, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
"If there ever was a case that cried out for review by the court, it was this one," Brent Walker, general counsel of the Washington-based Baptist Joint Committee, told a reporter. There is "no constitutionally significant distinction" between "discussing" religion, which is permitted under the school-use policy, and worship, which is not, he said.
The high court's decision not to review the case "does not approve the lower court's decision on the merits," he asserted. And the case is not binding outside the 2nd Circuit, he added. Every week, thousands of congregations across America use public school facilities for worship and instruction. In some jurisdictions, school boards specify that a congregation no longer can use a school after a certain period of time.
Creech case still roils UMC
Jimmy Creech, the Nebraska pastor who ignited a firestorm in the 9.5-million-member United Methodist Church when he performed a same-sex ceremony for two women last September, is out of a job as of July. Mr. Creech was narrowly acquitted of wrongdoing in a church trial March 13, but Nebraska Bishop Joel Martinez informed him this month he will not be reappointed to the pulpit of First United Methodist Church in Omaha. (UMC pastors are appointed annually by the regional bishop and cabinet.) The bishop cited the division Mr. Creech's action had caused in the church and dim prospects of reconciliation if he remained. About 300 people from the 1,900-member congregation have been meeting for Sunday worship in a nearby school. Mr. Creech says he has received no other job offers yet and doesn't expect any. Partly, he says, this is because he is committed to conducting same-sex "covenant" ceremonies if asked to do so in the future. Meanwhile, the UMC's international Council of Bishops issued a pastoral statement reaffirming its position that the Social Principles are part of the denomination's Book of Discipline and thus constitute church law. The jury majority that acquitted Mr. Creech had considered the Social Principles-which includes a ban on same-sex unions by UMC pastors and in UMC churches-as advisory and not binding. The council, made up of 50 active U.S. bishops and 17 active bishops from abroad, along with 57 retired bishops, made it clear: It is against church teaching for UMC pastors to conduct same-sex unions. Some evangelical groups within the UMC had petitioned the bishops to call a special session of the General Conference this year to deal with the matter. However, the council said it will first await a ruling by the church's highest court, the Judicial Council, which will convene in Dallas in early August to consider whether the language in the Social Principles is binding. The bishops' pastoral statement and the upcoming Judicial Council hearing have restored calm to some sectors of the church as many members adopt a wait-and-see position. But the waters remain roiled for others. In northern California, 22 UMC pastors have threatened to leave their parishes rather than fight what they contend is a liberal denominational bureaucracy that is getting stronger and a growing gay-rights movement. To Pastor John Christie of Mission City United Methodist Church in Santa Clara, there are two religions in the UMC: "One based on Scripture and one that feels we are in a new age with new truth."