Religion Notes


Issue: "Unholy matrimony," Feb. 13, 1999

Look West, landlords!

Landlords with religious scruples may refuse to rent to unmarried couples in nine Western states, but not in Michigan. In a 2-1 decision last month, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in favor of two Anchorage landlords fighting Alaska's ban on housing discrimination based on marital status. The majority opinion said the Alaska law and a similar one in Anchorage interfered with property owners' free exercise of religion as well as their property rights and freedom of speech. Moreover, the government failed to meet the "compelling interest" test, and, said the court, neither Alaska nor the federal government has a strong interest in quashing housing discrimination based on marital status. Alaska officials vowed to appeal. If the decision stands, it will be binding on federal courts in Alaska, California, and seven other states in the circuit. However, the Michigan supreme court several weeks earlier took the opposite view. In overturning two lower court decisions, it found a state law banning discrimination in housing to be neutral and applied to all citizens fairly. Therefore, it trumps the religious-liberty rights of landlords, the justices contended. Richard N. LaFlamme, the attorney representing Jackson landlords John and Terry Hoffius, said he probably will take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Hoffiuses had declined to rent to an unmarried couple because of their deeply held religious belief against unmarried cohabitation. "The standard the Michigan court has used is so broad that no state law could be found to violate religious freedom," Mr. LaFlamme said. "The burden that the court's analysis puts on the free exercise of religion is almost insurmountable."

Manual for change

A series of Sunday-school lessons on how homosexuals can change is being offered to adults at many Southern Baptist churches for the first time. The lessons characterize homosexuality as unnatural and sinful. Homosexuals are encouraged to seek transformation by turning to God, and Christians are urged to love and help them. Some of the lessons list additional resources on the healing of homosexuals and also offer suggestions for further reading. About 1.5 million lesson manuals were sold to churches, according to Lifeway Christian Resources, the publishing arm for the 15-million-member Southern Baptist Convention.

Sour note

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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., on behalf of a fired music director. Joyce Austin blames her dismissal in 1995 from Sacred Heart Cathedral on gender discrimination in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the EEOC agrees. She claims her duties were illegally assigned to men. Nonsense, says Johanna Moore, who headed the parish council at the church; she was terminated because the church was unhappy with the quality of music. Diocesan officials further argue that music is a key ministry of the church, and the church has First Amendment protections that allow it to hire and fire whomever it wants for ministerial positions. They say they believe they will prevail in court.

Separation of church and e-mail

A new school board policy in Aberdeen, S.D., allows teachers and other employees to use their school e-mail accounts to send each other personal messages-but not if the messages contain political, sexual, or religious content. Citing the constitution's Establishment Clause, the board majority rejected by a 4-3 vote an amendment that would have removed religion from the taboos, then approved the policy 4-3. Board member Paige Anderson, who voted against the policy, wondered what would be so wrong, for example, if teachers wanted to e-mail each other about church camp.

Church union hits a snag

Pope John Paul II's visit wasn't the only religious attraction in St. Louis last month. Delegates from nine Protestant denominations gathered there to try to breathe new life into the struggling Consultation on Church Union (COCU). It was just over 38 years ago that Presbyterian leader Eugene Carson Blake mounted Episcopal Bishop James Pike's pulpit at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and proposed that the United Presbyterian and Episcopal churches invite the Methodist Church and United Church of Christ to join them in drawing up a plan for church union. The proposal found a welcome in mainline denominational circles. COCU was formed to facilitate merger talks involving eventually nine denominations with nearly 20 million members. But as the years of conversations and planning wore on, disagreements set in, not so much over doctrine as over issues of power: Some who favored diminishing the offices and role of Christ refused to countenance any change in the office and role of church bishops. In St. Louis, delegates voted to move toward a broad affiliation with broad doctrine that would have member churches publicly proclaim in the year 2002 they are Churches Uniting in Christ. These churches would agree to share one baptism and to recognize one another, in carefully chosen words, as "authentic expressions of the one church of Jesus Christ." Five years later, they also would fully accept one another's ministers as "instruments of God's grace." The churches would regularly celebrate communion together. COCU leaders hailed the vote as a victory for church unity. But Episcopalians weren't so sure. The second draft of the St. Louis document deleted references to bishops to keep the Presbyterians happy, but that move upset Episcopal presiding bishop Frank T. Griswold. Delegates quickly adopted an amendment calling for meetings of church representatives to clarify what it means to recognize each other's ministries. Said Bishop Griswold: "If we can't resolve this question [of leadership] we might have to go our separate ways."


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