Religion Notes


Issue: "Quayle's presidential bid," June 19, 1999

In Phoenix, free speech is unacceptable bus fare

Transportation officials in Phoenix, Ariz., welcome advertisements on their buses as long as they are paid for and they don't contain religious or political messages. A Catholic group, the Children of the Rosary, which wanted to buy space for pro-life messages, challenged the policy in court on grounds it violated the First Amendment's free-speech guarantees-and won. However, the city revised its policy to limit advertising to "speech which proposes a commercial transaction." It rejected an ad with a "Choose Life" message next to the Children of the Rosary logo. The logo depicts a preborn baby, a rosary, and a cross. But to meet the commercial-transaction requirement, the ad did contain an appeal to purchase a bumper sticker with the same message. The city likewise turned down an ad for a bumper sticker by the American Civil Liberties Union. Its message: "The ACLU Supports Free Speech for Everyone." This time, the Catholic group and the ACLU lost in court. A federal district court rejected their challenge, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling. A visiting member of the appeals court, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White, wrote that an advertising panel on a city bus is not a public forum. The city, he said, may restrict speech in such a nonpublic forum on the basis of subject matter, but not on the basis of viewpoint. On May 24 the U.S. Supreme Court nodded agreement. The Children of the Rosary and the ACLU will have to find something else to say or somewhere else to say it.

Disestablishing churches

Changes, both modest and major, are coming to the ecclesiastical scene in northern Europe as the historic Lutheran churches there move-or are pushed-toward disestablishment from the state. Last month, the synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Finland decided that the country's president will no longer appoint the church's bishops. Instead, they will be determined through an election process of clergy and laity; the winner of the election will be formally appointed bishop by a diocesan board. The ELCF's 4.5 million members represent about 86 percent of the country's population. The biggest changes will occur in the Church of Sweden, whose 7.5 million members make it the largest Lutheran denomination in the world. It will be disestablished on January 1. For a long period, every person born in Sweden has been accepted as a member of the state church unless he opted out. Presently, almost 85 percent of the Swedish people belong to the church, the archbishop said. Yet, he lamented, it is easier to talk about God in the United States than in Sweden. "We need extensive theological training of the laity."

More sunshine for nonprofits

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It now is a little easier for the public and the authorities to monitor nonprofit ministries and other charities. Effective June 8, new rules by the Internal Revenue Service spell out what the nonprofits must do to comply with the law that requires them to make copies of their Form 990 informational tax returns readily available to the public. The forms include detailed financial information about income and expenses, salaries of top officers, and the like. A nonprofit organization must provide copies of its three most recent tax returns immediately to anyone who requests them in person (or the next day if the request is made late in the business day), and within 30 days to those who make written requests. Before, nonprofits were required only to show copies of their returns to anyone who visited their offices; they were not required to provide photocopies (though many did). Alternatively, a nonprofit may place an "exact reproduction" of the Form 990s on an Internet website. (Some watchdog groups are lobbying to make online access to the information a requirement.) Nonprofits may charge "reasonable" copying fees: no more than the IRS itself charges, $1.00 for the first page and 15 cents per page thereafter. Penalties for failing to comply are stiffer and broader. Charity officials can face a personal penalty of $20 a day for every day they fall behind in providing a form, up to $10,000 per return. An additional $5,000 fine can be levied for "willful failure" to follow the statute.

Discussing God: It's a federal issue

Sandra McNett of Argyle, Wis., does not believe in God. So, she filed a federal lawsuit last month claiming a school bus driver violated the First Amendment rights of her 6-year-old son, Christopher Sarabia, by talking about God with him while driving him to school. The suit says the school district was wrong to deny the mother's request for a different driver to take her son to class. School district officials spoke with the driver about the complaint and thought that was sufficient. It was impractical to arrange for another driver to drive the boy the 15 miles to kindergarten, they noted, adding that Mrs. McNett rejected the school's offer to pay her to transport him. Mrs. McNett and the bus driver, Debbie Fischer, tell conflicting stories of what was said on the bus. Mrs. McNett says her son was told "about the baby Jesus, about Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, [and] if you didn't believe in God you would go to hell." When she explained to her son over Christmas dinner that the family did not believe in God, she alleges, he said she was lying. Miss Fischer said she spoke with Christopher only once, after he asked about her father, who had recently died: "He asked me where he is now. I said, 'He's in heaven.' He asked how he'd get to heaven. I said, God sent his Son for us so when we die we can go to heaven." "That was the only time," she insists. "I believe in the Lord myself, but to press it on a child-that's incorrect."


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