Americans United

Can teens study the Bible on non-sectarian terms? This project says ... yes they can

Can teens study the Bible on non-sectarian terms? This project says ... yes they can

Few if any U.S. media noted that Nov. 12–18 was National Bible Week, but the origin of the observance has feature potential for this time next year.

That’s because in 1941 the NBC radio network, with the blessing of President Roosevelt, launched the first Bible Week by devoting a Sunday to on-air readings from the Good Book, something unimaginable in 2018. And as it happened, the chosen date was Dec. 7, so Scripture had to be interspersed with breaking news bulletins on Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack.

Here’s a different bid for biblical penetration of culture, in case your outlet hasn’t covered it yet. Since 2005, the non-profit Essentials in Education (E.I.E.) of New York City has campaigned for U.S. public high schools to offer elective courses on the Bible that are academically valid, fully legal under the U.S. Constitution, and acceptable to believers of any religion –- or none.   

E.I.E. does this with “The Bible and Its Influence,” its innovative and carefully non-sectarian textbook, sold in print and digital formats. The publication (.pdf here) benefits from a notably broad lineup of 40 consultants, with lawyers and public school educators alongside Jewish, “mainline” Protestant, evangelical, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Mormon representatives.

To date, “Influence” has been taught in 640 schools in 44 states (the exceptions are Delaware, Iowa, Montana, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming). Nine states have passed laws that encourage schools to offer such non-sectarian Bible courses (Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Kentucky, which joined the list in June).

The latest angle, discussed at an Oct. 24 presser, is efforts to go global. There have been discussions with members of parliament in Brazil, Finland and Great Britain;  pilot projects in Canada, Rwanda, South Korea, Taiwan and Communist China; and academic conferences on this concept in Australia, the Philippines and even Hindu-dominated India.

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A religiously intriguing lawyer joins Trump defense team as a key adversary exits  

A religiously intriguing lawyer joins Trump defense team as a key adversary exits  

The addition of controversial attorney Jay Sekulow to President Donald Trump’s defense team is a wide-open invitation for journalistic personality stories. By all accounts, Sekulow, 61, is among America’s most zealous -- and effective -- religious litigators. He also hosts a daily radio show and has become an omnipresent Trump advocate on other media. 

Early coverage on his appointment left unexplored territory on the religion aspects of the sort noted by The Forward, the venerable liberal Jewish newspaper whose print and online editions reach a broad readership. Then The Washington Post published a June 27 jaw-dropper on Sekulowian finances.

More on money in a moment. If The Forward’s treatment seemed harsh, that’s certainly predictable. Sekulow has been in the middle of many social issues that are considered “conservative” while the paper has traditionally embraced socialists and liberal Democrats.

Moreover, Sekulow was raised in Reform Judaism, but became a “Messianic Jew” (that is, an evangelical Protestant of Jewish ethnicity) during college years at Mercer University, where he later earned his law degree. After work as a trial attorney for the IRS and a business lawyer in Atlanta, in 1990 he became chief counsel for the new American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson.  

Like Trump’s top lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, Sekulow is no expert in the Washington, D.C., quicksand the President finds himself in. But he’s battle-hardened, having argued 12 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in his religion specialization. Early on, Sekulow grasped that federal judges are less than ardent supporters of religious freedom claims and switched to a civil liberties strategy exploiting other Bill of Rights guarantees, winning for instance a 1987 Supreme Court OK for airport pamphlet distribution by Jews for Jesus.

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'Twas the week before Christmas and all through The New York Times, the Kellerisms were ...

'Twas the week before Christmas and all through The New York Times, the Kellerisms were ...

If there's a cliché we might do better without, it could be the phrase "War on Christmas." As we head out of cultural Christmas and into the actual 12 days of the Christmas season, let's reflect on that just a bit.

Actually, The New York Times and I might agree about that cliche thing. Of course, the difference is that my opinion is expressed here as a blogger. The Times, on the other hand, puts its position forward in a news article. (And while I write this on the Third Day of Christmas, it's still worth looking back a bit, I believe, as we brace for next year.)

Such an adherence to Kellerism -- the journalism "doctrine" that editors at the Times know who is right and who is not on moral, cultural and religious issues -- isn't surprising. Coming a few days after top Times editor Dean Baquet admitted his reporters "don't get" issues of religion, however, it is a bit of a chin-scratch: Do editors over there, you know, talk to each other?

Here we go:

The idea of a “War on Christmas” has turned things like holiday greetings and decorations into potentially divisive political statements. People who believe Christmas is under attack point to inclusive phrases like “Happy Holidays” as (liberal) insults to Christianity.
For over a decade, these debates have taken place mainly on conservative talk radio and cable programs. But this year they also burst onto a much grander stage: the presidential election.
At a rally in Wisconsin last week, Donald J. Trump stood in front of a line of Christmas trees and repeated a campaign-trail staple.

(Along with the whole talking-to-each-other thing, I also wonder if it is now standard operating procedure for each and every Times article on controversial subjects to have a mandated reference to the soon-coming 45th President of the United States, one Donald J. Trump. If so, it's gonna be a long four years, I'm guessing.)

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Most of America's religious 'nones' aren’t atheists, and aggressive 'new atheism' isn’t new

Most of America's religious 'nones' aren’t atheists, and aggressive 'new atheism' isn’t new

With a growing chunk of Americans identifying as “nones” unmoored from religious identity, The Atlantic’s Emma Green says we often hear the following: “As science became a more widely accepted method for investigating and understanding the physical world, religion became a less viable way of thinking -- not just about medicine and mechanics but also culture and politics and economics and every other sphere of public life. As the United States became more secular, people slowly began drifting away from faith.”

That’s too simple, Green continues, “arguably inaccurate,” and “seems to capture neither the reasons nor the reality.” Many “nones” believe in God and pray regularly, so it’s much more a drift from “organized religion” than from faith.

Though polls show outright atheists who reject belief in God remain a tiny minority, organized atheism is becoming more prominent and aggressive. A July federal lawsuit by American Atheists goaded Kansas City into withholding on short notice its promised $65,000 to provide shuttle transportation for 20,000 attendees at the National Baptist Convention session Sept. 5-9, causing headaches for that huge African-American group. Such city aid is a standard means to help visitors and foster convention business.

Another federal lawsuit was filed August 25 by American Atheists and three groups of Pennsylvania non-believers, alongside Americans United for Separation of Church and State. It challenges the ban on non-believers delivering opening prayers for Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives. (Old gag: How does a non-believer begin a prayer? “To whom it may concern.”)

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Mirror-image time again: So Hillary Clinton went to church and won some endorsements?

Mirror-image time again: So Hillary Clinton went to church and won some endorsements?

It is time for another mirror-image journalism case study here at GetReligion. The URL for this one came from a friend of this blog who is a church-state issues professional in DC Beltway land. Let's just leave it at that.

Let me stress that the following is not a commentary on the Hillary Clinton campaign.

It is also not intended as a commentary on the tricky issue of religious LEADERS, as opposed to non-profit religious ministries, endorsing political candidates (as opposed to religious leaders and institutions making statements on moral and religious issues that may be linked to political campaigns). To tell you the truth, I am not sure where I would draw the free-speech line on this issue of endorsements by religious leaders, especially in the context of worship rites in their own sanctuaries. Yes, think Donald Trump at Liberty University, if you wish.

My goal is to discuss a journalism issue. So here is the top of the recent Associated Press report to which our friend pointed us. Read carefully:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Hillary Clinton is making a big final push in Kentucky, where rival Bernie Sanders hopes to extend his winning streak and further delay her clinching the Democratic presidential nomination.
Big-name surrogates have been sent, television ads are playing and Clinton is touring the state in advance of Tuesday’s voting. On Sunday, the former secretary of state dropped in at Louisville churches and held rallies in Louisville and Fort Mitchell. Sanders on Sunday made a swing through Kentucky as well.

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Once again, New York Times reporters travel deep into the mysterious Bible Belt

Once again, New York Times reporters travel deep into the mysterious Bible Belt

When you have read as many mainstream news stories about church-state conflicts as I have, the minute you spot another one your mind begins asking a familiar litany of questions.

Like this one: Will the reporters find anyone to interview on the cultural left, other than an expert linked to the omnipresent Americans United for Separation of Church and State?

I mean, you know that someone from the Freedom From Religion Foundation will appear in the article. This is usually the group that is responding to something that someone in the Midwest or the Bible Belt has done to initiate the conflict that is the hook for the story. So you know that the journalists will have talked -- as they should -- with Annie Laurie Gaylor of the foundation.

But why settle for these two groups over and over, especially when dealing with conflicts in the Bible Belt? Why not seek out church-state professionals who live and work in that region?

This leads to the next question: Who will the journalists from the elite Northeast seek out, when researching the story, to serve as expert voices for the other side, for the cultural conservatives involved in this story? I mean, if journalists doing a story of this kind need to talk to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (and they do) and they need to talk to experts on the church-state left (and they do), then who will they find to serve as experts on the other side, on the cultural right?

News flash! There are plenty of academics and lawyers now who work on what could be called the church-state right. There are even folks in think tanks that are in the middle (#gasp). If journalists are going to talk to the groups on the left (as they should), then they also need to talk to experts on the other side. That would be the journalistic thing to do.

This brings us to rural Georgia (you don't get more Bible Belt than that), where representatives of The New York Times (you don't get more elite Northeast than that) are trying to figure out why the locals -- police in this case -- keep wanting to pull God into public life. Here's the top of the story:

 

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Billings, Mont., Gazette needs to pose more questions about dinosaur museum imbroglio

Billings, Mont., Gazette needs to pose more questions about dinosaur museum imbroglio

There’s a lot of religion out in America’s rural precincts, far from the big news zip codes that really matter, but sometimes it's hard to get decent coverage.

Here’s a piece about public school children in northeast Montana who’ve had an annual field trip for several years to a museum that espouses a creationist perspective. Then someone anonymously complains -- apparently not to the school itself but to an out-of-state group that has the legal chops to make things unpleasant if it so wants to -- and said group threatens the local school district. Judging from the tone of this piece, the local reporter is not familiar with Americans United for Separation of Church and State but those of us who’ve covered religion out of Washington DC know them quite well. They have a nice suite of offices on Capitol Hill and they can be intimidating.

Here’s what happened:

Glendive third-graders will no longer visit their town's creationist museum amid concerns that the annual school trip to learn about dinosaurs violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
School district administrators had authorized this year's field trip to the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum but reversed course last week after receiving a letter from a Washington, D.C., advocacy group calling the school-sponsored event illegal. Their decision dashed the hopes of many of the children, some parents said.

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'Special pleaders,' church-state issues and the new Republican shape of the U.S. Congress

'Special pleaders,' church-state issues and the new Republican shape of the U.S. Congress

Good stories lurk in ideology-driven magazines and web sites on the religion beat, perhaps more so than with other fields.

For example, there’s often useful fare blended with the partisanship of Church & State, monthly house organ of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. This lobby and litigator closely monitors those it assails as “far-right religious conservatives,” provides some useful information and is always happy to brief reporters on its side of an issue.

Consider, for example, the cover story in Church & State’s current issue, “New Congress, New Challenges,” by assistant communications director Simon Brown. Republicans rode to victory on “fundamentalist support,” he says, so “2015 could be a cataclysmic year for church-state separation.” 

Stripped of the tendentious rhetoric and alarmism, Brown assembles some good tips.  As he observes, during the next two years the Republican-run Congress may revive hot-button religion bills that previously died in committee or passed  the G.O.P House but not the Democratic Senate. They would:

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