Old Virginia, new Virginia
It took a centuries-old Virginia law that limits church property ownership to bring together Jerry Falwell and the ACLU. And last week, Rev. Falwell ended his lawsuit against the state when Virginia agreed that the law does not apply to Rev. Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.
The fight concerns laws dating back to Thomas Jefferson's time. To limit the power of churches, Virginia limited the size of congregational property. No church may own more than 15 acres in a city or town or 250 acres in a county.
When Rev. Falwell decided that Thomas Road Baptist Church needed a larger new sanctuary, he found the 18th-century law stood in the way. He sued, and a federal judge dismissed his claim after the attorney general's office said it would not enforce the laws. Unsatisfied that the action left the core religious liberty issue unresolved, Rev. Falwell refiled the suit earlier this year.
Lawyers for both sides agreed that because the church was incorporated last April, it had become exempt from the property restrictions. (Last April, U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon struck down a state law barring churches from becoming corporations.)
Still, the property restrictions remain on the books. The ACLU had filed a legal brief supporting Rev. Falwell, arguing that meddling in churches' property rights "relegates them to a disfavored status."
Gimme that online religion
Receptionist LaDonna DeVore and other employees of the Dallas-area Highland Park school district may now include religious references in their e-mail at work. A supervisor had censured Ms. DeVore last spring for sending other employees a personal note with a copy of President Bush's proclamation of May 2 as the National Day of Prayer.
The supervisor said the e-mail was "inappropriate" and violated a policy that allows staff to send personal and work-related e-mails on the district's mail system but not if they have a religious purpose. Ms. DeVore sued, claiming the policy was discriminatory and violated her First and 14th Amendment rights ("Religion in the e-square," Aug. 17).
Under a court-approved settlement last month, the school district agreed to drop the religious-content restrictions from its policy. The district also agreed to pay $5,000 in attorney fees to Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, which brought the lawsuit.
Two hours of stormy debate ended with a whimper, as 137 active and retired bishops of the Episcopal Church last week gutted a draft resolution that would have chastised some of them by name for disruptive and "inappropriate behavior." The action came at the fall meeting of the church's House of Bishops in Cleveland.
Bishop Robert Ihloff of Maryland introduced the resolution, which expressed "disappointment" with liberal Philadelphia bishop Charles Bennison for failing to resolve issues surrounding the "deposition" (defrocking) of prominent conservative priest David Moyer ("Battling bishops," Sept. 21). But it also knocked evangelical bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh for taking "unilateral ... extra-canonical action" in offering Rev. Moyer a position in his diocese.
The resolution also criticized the dioceses of Kansas and Delaware for authorizing the blessing of same-sex unions, an action that "went beyond the consensus" of the church's last general convention.
In the end, the bishops voted to remove the references to specific bishops and dioceses, and to tone down other sections. The final wording stated that collegiality "and our episcopal vows require that we confront instances of inappropriate behavior" while striving to maintain unity.
It said that church laws, "used properly," can help unify the church-a gentle slap at Bishop Bennison's defrocking of Rev. Moyer. But it also said, "we expect that depositions and other disciplinary actions be recognized by all bishops of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion" -a slap at Bishop Duncan and Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, and reaffirmation of a bishop's ultimate authority. It skirted the issue of accountability. | Edward E. Plowman
Gambling on the future
Tennessee may avoid catching lottery fever, but don't bet on it. The temperature is running high, according to recent surveys, with a referendum for a state lottery, which is on the ballot in November, drawing 2-1 support.
Supporters point to a $480 million state budget shortfall and hint that a lottery is the only way to keep out a state income tax. But a group called the Gambling Free Tennessee Alliance argues that lotteries lead to political corruption, hurt children and the poor, and are bad for the economy. The Tennessee Baptist Convention is rolling out 3.2 million leaflets to persuade Volunteer State citizens to vote no.
Today, 38 states run lotteries and 30 allow and regulate casino gambling.
Sara Herwig was a male, a husband, and a father, but in 1997 (following divorce) decided to switch gender and become a female, with the necessary medical assistance. Now "she" wants to be ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. She holds a Master of Divinity seminary degree.
The PCUSA's Boston Presbytery last month voted 45-32 to approve her as a candidate for ministry, a preparatory step to ordination. She is a worker at First Presbyterian Church in Waltham, Mass., which has an average Sunday attendance of 35 and is a "More Light" congregation. More Light congregations choose leaders regardless of sexual preferences.
Some presbytery members sought to postpone the decision in order to consult more resources and examine the matter more closely. The only resource they had was a six-page paper Ms. Herwig read, describing her "journey," the Presbyterian Layman reported. One of her main points: Problems of the transgendered are Western society's fault for insisting "that there can be only two genders and that these must be consistent with one's biological sex."
Among the dissenters was Rev. Richard Brondyke, who said the presbytery acted out of supposed compassion for the candidate without a basis for deciding whether it was the right thing to do. He told the Layman: "We had no presentation of a theological or biblical reflection on transgenderism; rather, we seemed to rely on one-sided psychology. If the PCUSA is going to be the Church, it must be willing to obey the Lord of the Church, not the winds of cultural relativism." | Edward E. Plowman
The view from the top
No news is good news. But if there must be news, then it should have the right spin. That seems to be the thinking of the gatekeepers of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.
At last month's meeting of the PCUSA governing council, the 43 members considered a paper with some new guidelines aimed at controlling how staffers at the Presbyterian News Service report "sensitive" stories. Uppermost: the "institutional voice" of the PCUSA must be heard in the stories. In effect, it meant that if the news service, for example, reported on controversial action in or by a regional presbytery, the story would have to include counterpoint from headquarters.
Council member John Bolt, who is an Associated Press bureau chief in West Virginia and, as he said, "a journalist by God's calling," argued for defeat of the paper. He warned the language would allow administrators to spin stories to their own liking. There's too much interference already, he indicated. For example, he said, the news service at one annual PCUSA assembly had to change the first paragraph of a story "because it didn't exactly sound right" to some administrators. The news service's audience is Presbyterians in the pews, "not the people at [headquarters]," he declared. The service "exists to report on the church for the church."
Council member Marj Carpenter, a former moderator of the PCUSA and former director of the news service, also argued against the proposed revisions. The service "is not the institutional voice for the church," she asserted. "If we tie their hands too much, I guarantee you Presbyterians will find something else to read, and it won't be out of [headquarters] no matter how many communications experts we hire in different divisions."
Hers was a veiled warning about driving more PCUSA members to publications like the influential conservative Presbyterian Layman. It also was a putdown of top PCUSA administrators who are hiring their own spin doctors to produce sanitized messages.
Roots of the proposed changes go back to the news service's coverage of a speech by Rev. Dirk Ficca of Chicago in 2000. The story reported that Rev. Ficca questioned the biblical teaching that Christ is the only way to salvation, and quoted him as saying, "What's the big deal about Jesus?" As the story spread, the PCUSA plunged deeper into controversy. Administrators blamed the news service for "mishandling" the story and using the inflammatory quote.
When it came time for the council to vote, it was close: 22-21 not to approve the revised guidelines. | Edward E. Plowman