Church-State Update tracks continuing developments in important federal, state, and local church-state issues. Each item is preceded by an up arrow () or a down arrow (¸), based on the story’s implications for separation of church and state and the rights of the nonreligious.
Washington Wire . . .Bush Orders FaithBased Initiative. After two years President Bush couldn’t persuade Congress to implement direct government aid to faith-based charities. So in December he signed executive orders to realize most of the agenda on presidential authority alone. Religious organizations can obtain tax dollars for their social service programs even if provided in coercively religious settings. No religious organization can be denied funding because it discriminates in hiring on the basis of religion. Bush opposes cloning babies, but he ordered the Department of Agriculture and the Agency for International Development to create clones of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives within their departmental structures.
Consequences weren’t long in coming. In January, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced that it would now provide federal funds for constructing houses of worship, so long as some part of the structures is used for providing social services.
“Special Rights” Religion Laws Spawn Suits. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). California’s prison system had challenged the 2000 statute, which curbs the power of prison administrators and zoning authorities to inhibit religious free exercise. Critics say RLUIPA gives religious persons and organizations special rights not available to others. More than forty law-suits are now pending under RLUIPA and related bills adopted by eleven states. Plaintiffs are usually inmates demanding unusual religious diet or dress privileges, or churches challenging municipal zoning restrictions.
Pledge Case Passes “Go.” A three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a motion by plaintiff Michael Newdow’s estranged wife challenging his standing to sue on behalf of his daughter. In February, the Ninth Circuit Court declined to reconsider another Ninth Circuit panel’s June 2002 decision to strike the words under God from the Pledge of Allegiance. Next stop; the U.S. Supreme Court.
Around the Country . . .Evolution Opponents Gain Vaguely. Educators in Ohio; Cobb County, Georgia; and Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, adopted policy statements that uphold the teaching of evolution but open school doors to intelligent design (ID) and other creationist concepts. The good news: in all three cases, educators rejected proposals to require teaching of ID or other creationist topics.
Montgomery, Alabama. Judge Roy Moore’s two-ton Ten Commandments cenotaph will remain in the lobby of Alabama’s Judicial Building while Moore appeals a U.S. District Court’s finding that the monument is unconstitutional—which may take months or years.
Leon County, Florida. Florida’s Second Judicial Circuit Court has found that state’s school voucher program unconstitutional under Florida law, ordering its immediate cessation. This offers a ray of hope after the U.S. Supreme Court Zelman decision essentially gutted federal law obstacles to school vouchers.
Mercer County, Kentucky. U.S. District Judge Karl Forester upheld a courthouse display of the Ten Commandments accompanied by other historic texts. Forester ruled that the Decalogue display had no religious purpose. A few counties over, another federal judge has ruled exactly the same sort of display unconstitutional.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Louisi ana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education rejected a resolution that would have required biology textbooks to carry a disclaimer saying that evolution is unproven. Alabama remains the only state requiring a textbook disclaimer.
Santa Maria, California. A Wiccan student punished for challenging a teacher who posted John 1:14 on a classroom wall has been vindicated. Sierra Leffers had been punished for objecting to the Bible quote by being stripped of presidency of the French club and her spot on a school field trip to France. School officials reversed both after Leffers and her mother contacted the American Civil Liberties Union.
Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry and former coordinator of the First Amendment Task Force.