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How firm a foundation?

Culture | The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State are challenging government funding of faith-based community-service programs

Issue: "The fewer and the proud," April 23, 2005

Taking aim with both barrels at the Bush administration's faith-based initiatives, the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit against Firm Foundation of Bradford County (Pa.) and Pennsylvania offices and officials. FF is a prison ministry that provides inmate vocational training with the help of local, state, and federal grants.

The plaintiffs argue that the religious nature of FF's training program disqualifies the ministry from receiving government support. They also claim that FF's hiring policy is discriminatory because it requires its employees to be Christian, and that this, too, violates the Constitution's Establishment Clause.

Christian Legal Society defense attorneys say they are confident FF is on solid ground, but they anticipate a tough battle in the courts. They believe the eventual ruling could decide the future of government funding for many faith-based community-service programs. And, they add, it could decide whether religious organizations must secularize their faith-based programs in order to receive government grants.

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The Bush administration this month said faith-based groups received more than $2 billion in federal funding for fiscal 2004, up from $1.17 billion in 2003.

Separately, the ACLU looked approvingly on President Bush's decision to honor Pope John Paul II by ordering flags lowered to half-staff on all public buildings. Responding to complaints that the move was a breach in church and state separation, Denver's ACLU said the action was "entirely appropriate" in view of the pope's importance as a world leader and as head of a foreign state (the Vatican).

Leaving the fold

The court decision in the long Terri Schiavo feeding-tube case divided many Christians-including Florida county judge George Greer and his pastor and fellow members at 2,000-member Calvary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. Judge Greer ruled that by law Michael Schiavo as Terri's husband had the right to make decisions on her behalf. Opponents had wanted him to cede custody to Mrs. Schiavo's parents, who wanted to keep her feeding tube in place. The judge, a former Republican county commissioner described by fellow church members as pro-life, said he was nevertheless sworn to uphold the law.

Tensions between the judge and his church arose in 2003 after the Florida Baptist Witness published editorials critical of him. Calvary wraps its own newspaper inside the Witness, the Southern Baptist state newspaper, so it is circulated widely among Calvary's members. By all accounts, Judge Greer stopped attending services as a result and halted his contributions. He expressed displeasure with how the church publication treated him, but he has declined all requests for news interviews.

New pastor William Rice arrived on the job last fall. He said he offered to meet with the judge to discuss their differences, but no meeting took place. The Witness meanwhile continued its criticism, and Rev. Rice publicly commended the editors for doing so. Finally, on March 10, he wrote a letter to Judge Greer that became public when he sent a copy to the courthouse.

The letter said: "If you have chosen to leave Calvary, distance yourself from her, and criticize her publicly, then why have you not formally transferred your membership elsewhere? I am not asking you to do this, but since your connection with Calvary continues to be a point of concern, it would seem the logical and, I would say, biblical course."

The judge's reply came in the form of a letter announcing his resignation from the church.

Rev. Rice told reporters he regretted the letter was made public, but he insisted Judge Greer's withdrawal from Calvary was "completely voluntary." He said the judge would always be welcome at the church, adding: "We will continue to pray for [him]." He also emphasized that Calvary "has long been committed to the sanctity of life."

Bulletin Board

· Under fire from Jewish groups opposed to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s support of a Messianic Jewish congregation in Philadelphia, Avodat Yisrael, the denomination's local regional unit severed financial ties to it. Officials said the congregation had failed to meet membership and attendance goals, an explanation its leaders rejected.

· Archbishop Iakovos, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Americas for 37 years and president of the World Council of Churches for nine years, died on April 10 at age 93. His controversial bid to unite the 10 North American branches of Eastern Orthodoxy under a single administrative umbrella ended when Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, titular head of global Orthodoxy, forced him to resign in 1996.

· A battle over ordination of noncelibate homosexuals is raging in the 4.8-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Current ELCA policy bans such clergy. A denominational task force in January proposed exceptions to the ban that would allow openly gay clergy to evade church discipline. On March 1, 17 ELCA theologians issued a statement in favor of keeping the policy in place. This month, 63 other ELCA theologians fired back, endorsing the proposed change. Likewise, the ELCA governing council announced April 11 that it backs the change. Some 1,000 delegates will vote on the proposed changes at the ELCA church-wide assembly in August.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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