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Graduation uprising

Religion | Court order can't keep God and prayer out of Kentucky high school graduation

Issue: "Bird flu," June 10, 2006

As usual for this time of year, the anti-religion lobbies were active in their efforts to keep God and prayer out of high-school graduation ceremonies. They weren't always successful, certainly not at Russell County High School in Russell Springs, Ky. On graduation morning, a judge issued a restraining order barring the school and senior commencement speaker Megan Chapman from including prayer in the ceremonies. Word spread quickly throughout the student body and community.

That night, as the event began before an overflow audience, about 200 seniors spontaneously stood up and began reciting the Lord's Prayer. The crowd rose and began applauding long and loud. When Megan took the podium, she said God had guided her since childhood, and she urged her classmates to trust in God as they go through life. The audience repeatedly interrupted her with cheers and applause.

Liberty Counsel head Matthew Staver insisted it all was legal: Megan had not been listed as a party in the lawsuit, the judge had violated legal procedures and precedents in issuing the restraining order, and it had addressed only prayer. It didn't, and by law could not, prohibit Megan from sharing her religious viewpoint during the speech, he said.

Cracked foundation

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The nation's oldest mainline Baptist denomination is coming apart at the seams. Already struggling under severe financial strains and widespread apathy at the local level, the 1.4-million-member American Baptist Churches U.S.A. took it on the chin again last month. The governing board of one of its largest and most thriving regional units, the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest, voted unanimously to withdraw from the ABCUSA.

The regional unit claims some 300 churches in Southern California, Arizona, northern Nevada, and Hawaii. Delegates from the majority of the churches in an earlier straw poll had voted overwhelmingly in favor of withdrawal.

At issue: matters of doctrine and church discipline-especially, the unwillingness of ABCUSA leaders to enforce the denomination's position that gay sex is incompatible with Christian teaching. The leaders say they cannot take action against gay-friendly churches because Baptist churches are autonomous and creedless and have the right to interpret the Bible as they wish.

At ABCUSA headquarters in Valley Forge, Pa., general secretary Roy Medley issued a statement saying "God's heart is broken" over such divisions, but he said the denomination will "move forward in mission and ministry."

The southwestern unit's new name is Transformation Ministries. Its leaders indicated that emphasis will be on faithfulness to Scripture, strong churches, and evangelism. It is expected to attract other disaffected evangelical-led ABCUSA churches from other regions across the country.

The loyalty of other regions is in question. West Virginia, with nearly 10 percent of the ABCUSA's 5,400 congregations, narrowly rejected a proposal to withdraw last year, and may vote again. The Indiana-Kentucky region is pushing for a change in by-laws that would enforce discipline on gay-friendly churches. Michigan will consider withdrawal next year if there is no disciplinary action by the national denomination.

The American Baptist Churches of the West, representing 215 congregations in northern California and Nevada, has a track record of expelling gay-friendly congregations. Led at the top by evangelicals, it recently changed its name to Growing Healthy Churches, in part to avoid bad connotations of American Baptist identity.

The American Baptist Evangelicals renewal group, reportedly representing some 500 churches, recently announced that there is no hope left for Bible-based renewal of the ABCUSA; leaders disbanded it and reorganized under a new name, Cornerstone Church Network.

Bulletin Board

Scottish historian Callum Brown said it: "Britain is showing the world how religion as we have known it can die." Only 8 percent of British people who claim a church affiliation (77 percent of the population) attend church services, and that figure will fall to 2 percent by 2040, according to a recent study by London-based Christian Research. By then, Muslims in services on Fridays will far outnumber Christians in Sunday services, it said.

Eighty-one percent of Americans believe the country's moral values are getting worse -a record high in an annual Gallup Values and Beliefs Survey-with 85 percent ranking the "state of moral values" as fair or poor.

Associated Press religion writer Richard Ostling was named the 2006 recipient of the Religion Newswriters Association's lifetime achievement award. An evangelical with Reformed Church in America ties, Mr. Ostling began his career as a news editor for Christianity Today magazine. He joined Time magazine in 1969, writing hundreds of religion news articles, including 20 cover stories, and taking time to author or co-author several books. He was an associate editor when he left in 1998 for AP, where he helped to shape and expand the wire service's religion coverage. He will retire from AP next month but will continue to write a weekly Bible column.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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