Sunday, August 30, 2015

The 3 - August 30, 2015

This week on The 3, my week-in-review feature, with three stories of relevance to the Christian community, I spotlight a faith-based film that was competitive in the race for first place in the movie box office race over the weekend.  Also, freshmen students at Duke are voice complaints about a gay-themed, pornographic novel that was on their summer reading list.  And, in Syria, two churches suffered damage and death last weekend.

3  - "War Room" close to top of movie box office

The opening lines of the report on the Variety.com website spoke loudly:

The box office underwent a religious conversion this weekend as Christian crowds flocked to “War Room,” lifting the low-budget salute to prayer above the Zac Efron drama “We Are You’re Friends” and the Owen Wilson thriller “No Escape.”

Filmed for a mere $3 million and distributed by Sony’s Affirm division, “War Room” more than tripled its production budget in a single weekend, picking up $11 million from 1,135 locations. That also easily topped projections that had it debuting in the $4 million to $5 million range, although in retrospect those estimates were overly conservative given that advance ticket sales were unusually strong.

Friday night, according to Box Office Mojo, the ticket sales for War Room actually edged out the current box-office champ, Straight Outta Compton, which won the weekend, with War Room in second place.  The website reports that War Room had a $9692 per-screen average in the weekend estimates, while Compton had $4201 per screen.

And, consider these quotes from industry insiders in the Variety piece:

“These are the kind of outlier events that happen and wake everyone up to the fact that faith-based audiences are passionate and looking for content,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak.

“There is so much love for this film,” said Rory Bruer, Sony’s distribution chief. “It starts with the Kendricks. They’re visionaries in this genre.”

Another Variety story - a great read, by the way - reported this:

Credit for “War Room’s” ticket sales surge goes to its cast of African-Americans. That allowed the film to draw from pools of black and white moviegoers, an essential ingredient in its success given that polling shows that African-Americans are more religious than the U.S. population as a whole. Nearly 90% of African-Americans describe themselves as belonging to a religious group, with six out of ten coming from historically black protestant churches and 15% hailing from evangelical churches, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. For “War Room,” that translated to a racially diverse opening weekend crowd that was 36% African-American and 42% Caucasian, according to exit data.

The article goes on to quote from director Alex Kendrick:

Dramatic necessity, not commercial considerations, was at the root of the decision, Kendrick claims.

“When we were working on the plot it just seemed more powerful and passionate when told through the perspective of African-Americans,” said Kendrick. “I’m not sure it would have been as heart-grabbing if we hadn’t done that.”

Based on stats from the Mojo website, the opening weekend for War Room exceeded that of God's Not Dead (780 screens) and Courageous (1,161).   It looks to be a little less than half of the opening weekend for Heaven is For Real at about double the number of theaters.   A movie that covers similar ground to that one, 90 Minutes in Heaven, based on the book by Don Piper, opens on September 11.

2 - Duke students speaking out against LGBT novel

Here is some encouragement for students and their parents who are offended by agenda-driven and morally objectionable material being passed off as literature.  A group of freshman students at Duke University are speaking out publicly about their refusal to read a novel that was selected as the freshman summer reading book because the book's pornographic content violates their Christian beliefs and moral principles, according to The Christian Post, which reports that in April, Duke announced that the book, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, an autobiographical novel written by Alison Bechdel about her relationship with her father, was the one book selected from a list of six titles to be the class of 2019's "Common Experience" summer reading book.

The autobiographical book was written by a lesbian and carries LGBT undertones, and some Duke freshman were stunned to learn that they were being asked to read such a book. The offended students took to the university's Class of 2019 Facebook page to voice their disapproval. One student, Brian Grasso, one of the students who posted to the Facebook page and wrote that reading the book would compromise his Christian beliefs, wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post explaining why he and his fellow classmates refused to read the book.   Grasso wrote, "...in the Bible, Jesus forbids his followers from exposing themselves to anything pornographic." Freshman Jeffrey Wubbenhorst told the Duke Chronicle that he also refrained from reading the book because of the novel's graphic nature.

In a statement, Duke's Vice President for Public Affairs Michael Schoenfeld said, "The summer reading is entirely voluntary — it is not a requirement, nor is there a grade or record of any student's participation. With a class of 1,750 new students from around the world, it would be impossible to find a single book that that did not challenge someone's way of thinking."

The Post points out the university's summer reading program "furthers the trend of pornographic material becoming more acceptable in today's society."

Grasso wrote: "I'm well aware that my ethics make me an anomaly on campus, in contemporary culture and even among many professing Christians," adding, "However, my principles come primarily from my understanding of the Bible, which I have read multiple times, studied weekly in community for the last seven years, and consider to be the Word of God."

1 - Two churches bombed in Syria - some dead, scores injured

The death and destruction that has marked the brutal civil war in Syria continues, and on Sunday, August 23, mortar fire hit two churches in Damascus.  Christian Today reported that the death toll was nine people have died, with at least 50 wounded.

The shells fell on a neighborhood on the edges of Damascus, hitting a Maronite church and nearby Catholic church.

After the attack, Maronite Archbishop, Samir Nassar Nassar told Fides News Agency: "Part of the war in Syria is to live under indiscriminate bombing, a kind of Russian roulette which is always unpredictable," adding, "The survivors bury the dead without having been able to treat the wounded since they lack means and competence."  He also said: "They sink into silent prayer before the relics of martyrs, the seeds of faith."

The Christian Today article reports that airstrikes by President al-Assad's government have killed 247 people to the east of Damascus in the last 10 days, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The story points out that, "Syrian Christians are frequently caught in the crossfire between the Assad government and the rebels in addition to suffering persecution at the hands of ISIS, who have captured significant areas of the country."  The death toll from the four-year conflict has reache almost a quarter of a million people and over 11 million have fled their homes.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The 3 - August 23, 2015

On this week's edition of The 3, a Kentucky clerk who would not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, still doesn't have to - for now.  Also, thousands turned out to protest the nation's largest abortion provider on Saturday.  And, chaplains for college football teams have drawn opposition from an atheist organization.

3 - Kentucky clerk will not have to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couple...for now

The story of Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis and her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples continues, with a new development this week.  As WORLD reported, last week, U.S. District Judge David Bunning ordered Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis to issue the licenses or face fines and possible jail time. Davis maintains her sincerely held religious beliefs prevent her from issuing the licenses.

Judge Bunning stayed his order last Monday.  According to WORLD, he said that Davis didn’t deserve a reprieve from last week’s order but gave her one because “emotions are running high on both sides of the debate.”

In asking Bunning for a stay, Davis’ attorney, Jonathan Christman, said the order would force his client to violate her conscience.  He is quoted as saying, "It is comparable to forcing the religious objecting nurse to perform an abortion, the religious objecting company or non-profit to pay for abortions or abortion-related insurance coverage, the religious objecting non-combatant to fire on an enemy soldier, or the religious objecting state official to participate in or attend the execution of a convicted prisoner..."

The website for television station WKYT reported:

Monday afternoon, Judge David Bunning denied her stay but immediately issued a temporary stay to his ruling. Bunning says he understands emotions are running high on both sides.
Davis will not have to issue marriage licenses until the sixth circuit court of appeals reviews the case.

2 - Thousands protest Planned Parenthood in hundreds of U.S. cities

In response to the now-eight videos that have been released that provide evidence that the nation's largest abortion provider has been involved in the harvesting and sale of body parts from unborn children, (and, now it appears, the prospect of extracting organs from delivered children), tens of thousands of pro-life advocates across the country — perhaps as many as 50-75,000 people in all — protested at Planned Parenthood abortion clinics across the country on Saturday, according to a report on the LifeNews.com website. 

The site reports that the protests took place in over 350 cities in 47 states and 5 countries — with hundreds of people in many cities and over 6,000 in the Twin Cities in Minnesota alone.

Eric Scheidler of Pro-Life Action League told LifeNews: “These videos are exposing the American people to the truth about Planned Parenthood and the truth about abortion. How can you deny the humanity of a tiny person whose body parts are being harvested for medical use? Worse yet, how can you make jokes about it, like the Planned Parenthood doctors do in these videos? It’s time to cease all taxpayer funding of this corrupt organization.”

Father Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, issued a statement following the rallies, according to the organization's website. He said, "I am grateful to all the pro-life people who have responded to my invitation and that of some 40 other national pro-life groups to gather today to protest Planned Parenthood."  He continued: "The protests arising on the streets of America today reflect the protests arising in our hearts over the reality of abortion..."

Pavone also noted that, "Today also marks the start of a week of prayer and fasting, coordinated by 30 national pro-life groups, with prayers found at www.PrayerCampaign.org..."  He spoke at a protest outside the Margaret Sanger Center in Manhattan, named after Planned Parenthood's founder.  He announced that the pro-life movement would increased efforts to pressure the government to stop supporting Planned Parenthood, but also to pressure businesses to stop donating to it.

1 - Chaplains under fire at colleges nationwide

The so-called Freedom from Religion Foundation, which, mainly through the use of threatening letters, apparently wants to clamp down on freedom OF religion in America, has released a new report, in which it takes issue with the concept of football chaplains, stating that “Christian coaches and chaplains are converting football fields into mission fields," according to a report at ChristianNews.net.  The article quotes the FFRF report as saying, "Coaches, players, and even chaplains can worship as they want. They can go to church, read the Bible, and pray as often as they like. Nothing prevents them from doing so...But they cannot use a publicly subsidized position at a university to promote their personal religion. Nor can they use the coercive nature and structure of a public football program to mandate, order, or even suggest that players under their control should worship as the coaches wish."

FFRF says that it has now sent letters to approximately 20 university officials to explain why it believes that the use of chaplains is unconstitutional.  And it apparently doesn't just go after so-called "publicly subsidized" positions.  The letter apparently says, "It makes no difference if the chaplain is unofficial, not school-sponsored or a volunteer, because chaplains are given access to the team as a means for coaches to impose religion, usually Christianity, on their players."

Auburn University received a letter.  Acccording to AL.com, FFRF wrote AU President Jay Gogue, and the letter reportedly includes concerns related to the presence of Rev. Chette Williams within the football program, which the organization believes leads to the failure to "properly protect your student athletes' rights of conscience and pose(s) a high degree risk of discrimination" for those falling outside of certain religious groups.  Auburn released a short statement Thursday saying:

"Chaplains are common in many public institutions, including the US Congress. The football team chaplain isn't an Auburn employee, and participation in activities he leads are voluntary."

As the article points out, FFRF gets it wrong when it claims Williams works inside an office at Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium.  Williams operates in an office within the athletics department's student development center, which is connected to the adjacent athletics complex housing the football program. Chette is the Auburn campus director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.  

AL.com also reports that the University of Alabama received one of those confrontational letters.  So did Georgia, Georgia Tech, South Carolina, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, LSU, Missouri, Florida State, and Clemson.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The 3 - August 16, 2015

On this week's edition of my week-in-review feature, The 3, there continue to be ramifications from the information shared about Planned Parenthood and its alleged sale of body parts from aborted babies.  Also, in two cases involving religious freedom, a Colorado cake baker was found guilty by an appeals court of discriminating against a gay couple, and a Federal judge has ruled against a Kentucky clerk who will not issue marriage licenses to gay couples.  And, the top story involves some good news regarding the release of some Assyrian Christians that had been held hostage by ISIS; however, two Sudanese men who were set free by a judge are having some issues in leaving the country.

3 - AR cuts state funding to Planned Parenthood, Federal Government says that states who cut Medicaid funds for Planned Parenthood may be violating law

The fallout from the videos that have announced and affirmed that Planned Parenthood is involved in the sale of body parts from pre-born children continues to build, and this week, another state has announced it will no longer send tax dollars to Planned Parenthood through its Medicaid program.

The Christian Post reports that Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has asked the state's Department of Human Services to end its Medicaid contract with Planned Parenthood. The governor is quoted as saying that, "It is apparent that after the recent revelations on the actions of Planned Parenthood, that this organization does not represent the values of the people of our state and Arkansas is better served by terminating any and all existing contracts with them."

Earlier, the Obama administration had warned Louisiana and Alabama that their similar action may violate federal law.

A Breitbart story, citing a report in The Wall Street Journal, says that The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has stepped in to warn these states that they may be in violation of federal law because it says that the blocking of Planned Parenthood receiving these Medicaid funds could result in women losing access to essential preventive care, such as cancer prevention screenings.

The Brietbart piece says that spokesmen for both Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley said their states are not in violation of federal law since their Medicaid contracts with Planned Parenthood give either party the right to cancel it at will with a notice period: 30 days for Louisiana and 15 days for Alabama.

The HHS guidance says that states can exclude providers from Medicaid funding if their engagement in certain criminal acts is proven, a provision that many believe is the case with the videos of Planned Parenthood’s top medical personnel discussing the sale of aborted baby organs and body parts.

And, the Christian Post story related that StemExpress, which works with Planned Parenthood, said it is cutting its ties with the country's largest abortion provider.

Also, The Christian Post reported that the undercover videos can continue after biomedical company StemExpress failed, through legal action, to stop their release.

"It is apparent that after the recent revelations on the actions of Planned Parenthood, that this organization does not represent the values of the people of our state and Arkansas is better served by terminating any and all existing contracts with them," Hutchinson said in a statement Friday.
The Republican governor added that this includes "their affiliated organization, Planned Parenthood of Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma."
Hutchinson has not heeded the Obama administration's warning issued earlier to Louisiana and Alabama that their similar action may violate federal law.
However, DHS spokesperson Amy Webb said in a statement: "Based on the legal guidance from our counsel and a review of the contract, which allows either party to terminate for any reason with 30 days notice, we believe that we can terminate the provider agreement."

2 - CO baker loses in court over his refusal to provide cake for same-sex wedding ceremony, court tells KY clerk to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples

Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado, in 2012, declined to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, based on his Christian faith.  A Todd Starnes report at FoxNews.com tells the story.  According to court documents, Phillips offered to make them any other baked goods – including cakes, but they demanded that he make a wedding cake.

This week, the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed an order from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s order that Phillips violated the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act when he refused to make a wedding cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins.  

The Alliance Defending Freedom has been representing Jack Phillips. Attorney Jeremy Tedesco said, “Jack simply exercised the long-cherished American freedom to decline to use his artistic talents to promote a message with which he disagrees,” adding, “Government has a duty to protect people’s freedom to follow their beliefs personally and professionally rather than force them to adopt the government’s views.”

Phillips told Starnes that, "The court’s ruling is not fair...It shows that some people have more equal rights than others. When you’re not in line with the same-sex agenda, you don’t have as much equal rights.”   Starnes points out:

As it stands – Jack will be required by the government to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples. If he denies anyone service, he will be required to explain why. He is also expected to retrain his staff in the state’s anti-discrimination policies – including his 88-year-old mother.
It sounds like the government wants to round up Phillips and his staff and haul them to a reeducation camp – where they can be purged of the religious beliefs that offend the LGBT community.
“My mom is on my staff and she said she will not be retrained,” he defiantly said. “And I’m not going to make same-sex wedding cakes.”

Also, this week, a U.S. District Judge issued an opinion ordering Rowan County, Kentucky, Clerk Kim Davis to issue same-sex marriage licenses.  According to Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, which is representing the clerk: "Kim Davis did not sign up as a clerk to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Her job duty was changed by five lawyers without any constitutional authority. At a minimum, her religious convictions should be accommodated.”

The judge wrote: "...her religious convictions cannot excuse her from performing the duties that she took an oath to perform as Rowan County Clerk.”

Staver said, "Judge Bunning’s decision equated Kim’s free exercise of religion to going to church. This is absurd! Christianity is not a robe you take off when you leave a sanctuary." He continued, "he First Amendment guarantees Kim and every American the free exercise of religion, even when they are working for the government."  Liberty Counsel filed a request for a stay, as well as an appeal of the decision.

1 - Christians being held by ISIS released, Sudanese pastors await clearance to leave the country

There's been some good news this week on the international religious freedom front. According to The Christian Post, there were 22 Assyrian Christians released by ISIS.  They were part of the 200 Christians abducted in February in the Khabur region in northeastern Syria.

The Assyrian Observatory for Human Rights has said the Christians were released due to "the tireless efforts and negotiations by the Assyrian Church of the East in the city of Hasakeh," and noted that there were 14 women among the hostages.

At least 187 other Assyrians from the Khabur region remain imprisoned and ANHR Director Osama Edward is vowing that negotiations will continue to free them all. He is quoted as saying, "There is a positive atmosphere around the negotiation."

Also, the American Center for Law and Justice is reporting that there have been some delays in the release of 2 Sudanese pastors.   The ACLJ website has said that pastors Yat Michael Ruot and Peter Yein Reith were released by a Sudanese judge.  The pastors were originally from South Sudan and were facing possible death sentences.  The Center said that the pastors were released after a major international outcry.

However, they encountered some delays in leaving the country. After they were released from prison, the two men travelled to the airport to leave the country, but they were told they could not due to a travel ban.   It turns out that the judge may not have had jurisdiction to lift the ban, if it was put in placed by the National Intelligence Security Service (NISS), which originally levied the fabricated charges against the pastors. A hearing was set for Sunday, the 9th, and following that hearing, the travel ban remains in place.

The ACLJ website states:

We continue working with our contacts on the ground and aggressively advocating across the globe, urging Sudan to let the pastors leave the country. They and their families remain at risk. They will not be truly free until they are safely out of Sudan.

There is a petition on the organization's website or through BeHeardProject.com.

ChristianHeadlines.com also reports on two men who were released from Vietnam earlier this month. Authorities released Catholic blogger Paulus Le Van Son and Protestant activist Nguyen Van Oai, who had both served four-year prison terms for “trying to overthrow the legitimate government.” The articles states that they were arrested during a 2011 crackdown against bloggers and others with ties to human and religious rights groups, according to a report on the Asia News website.

And, the Christian Headlines website mentioned that Iranian Christians rejoiced when authorities released Church of Iran member Alireza Seyyedian on Aug. 1, according to Middle East Concern. Seyyedian served three and a half years in prison after authorities re-arrested him in March 2012 for trying to enter Turkey.  

The ACLJ reports on another prisoner in Iran, Pastor Saeed Abedini. The organization's website says that Human Right Activists News Agency Iran published a story this week that Pastor Saeed was again the victim of an aggressive inspection at the prison. The report said that Saeed’s condition in Rajai Shahr prison was very worrisome and that on August 6th, prison guards raided Pastor Saeed’s prison cell again. The news agency reports that Saeed was the sole target of the raid and that the guards’ actions toward Pastor Saeed were dishonorable and harsh.  A petition for Pastor Saeed's release can be found at BeHeardProject.com.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

The 3 - August 9, 2015

This week's edition of my week-in-review feature, The 3, includes more tragic news from the Middle East involving ISIS and Christians - this time in Syria.  Also, the issue of taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion provider, came before the U.S. Senate this week. And, Republican Presidential candidates squared off in Cleveland this past Thursday night, and faith and family issues were a part of the discussion.

3 - Over 200 Syrian Christians kidnapped by ISIS

The capture of Christians by Islamic State, or ISIS, continues, and this week, it has been reported that over 200 Christians in Syria have been captured by the terrorist organization.

Christian Today reports that around 250 Christians have been abducted in a key strategic town in the province of Homs, Syria. The founder of campaign group A Demand for Action (ADFA), Nuri Kino, confirmed that those missing are all from the Syriac Orthodox or Syriac Catholic churches, and the number known to have been taken is steadily increasing.

The article states that the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that the kidnapping took place during heavy clashes between ISIS militants and government forces in the town of Al Quaryatayn this week, which ISIS has now taken. It is the group's biggest capture since taking Palmyra in May.  Sources told the monitor that they were chosen according to name lists held by ISIS, and some were taken from the Mar Elian monastery, from which two Syriac Catholic monks were kidnapped by masked militants in May.  Their whereabouts are still unknown.

Kino said it is difficult to say what exactly has happened, but relatives have been unable to reach those held by phone. Around 1,500 people were able to flee, however, many of them to the headquarters of the Archdiocese of Homs, Hama and Environs.

The bishop, in a letter to churches and human rights organizations, stated: "We received those displaced...and gave them the basic and essential needs because they went out of their houses without taking anything with them neither clothes nor properties; so we are working on providing them with clothing, housing, and medication."

2 - Attempt to stop taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood fails in Senate

As the result of the growing number of videos released by the Center for Medical Progress pointing to activity by Planned Parenthood involving the sale of body parts from aborted children, the U.S. Senate scheduled a vote on whether or not to continue to allow taxpayer funds to go to the nation's largest abortion provider.

According to a piece on the WORLD Magazine website, a procedural vote Monday evening fell short of the 60 votes need to move the bill forward. The final tally was 53-46.  But the report says that some GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate have indicated they might attempt to block any spending bill that includes money for Planned Parenthood this fall.  Republican Representative Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina has said he expects several dozen GOP lawmakers to object to spending bills with funding for the group.

Mallory Quigley of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List (SBA) saw some good news in the vote, according to the report. She noted that when the Senate voted on a measure to defund Planned Parenthood in 2011, 42 senators favored the bill. This time, 53 supported the measure, an increase Quigley finds encouraging.

According to WORLD, "Planned Parenthood’s massive destruction of life includes 330,000 abortions a year. The organization’s $1 billion operating budget includes some $500 million of federal funding each year."  And, as the article points out, though Democrats claimed defunding Planned Parenthood would keep women from healthcare services like cancer screenings and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, Republicans said the bill would have diverted funding from Planned Parenthood to other healthcare centers offering services to low-income patients.

WORLD quotes the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of SBA, which reports a large number of options around the country for low-income patients at clinics that provide a wide array of healthcare services. The group says there are 13 times more federally qualified health centers - at 9,170 - that do not provide abortions than the 700 Planned Parenthood centers.

1 - Faith, family issues highlighted in Republican Presidential debate

The first Republican debate of the 2016 election is now in the history books, and while a number of story lines have emerged from the encounter involving the top 10 candidates, one of the gratifying aspects for evangelical Christians, I would think, has to be the number of questions about faith and family issues.  Baptist Press documented what candidates had to say in these important areas.

The story said that:

Among the reactions of Southern Baptist commentators was approval of at least two explicit mentions of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, prompting Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson to tweet, "Heard more Gospel content in Republican debate than one often hears in some churches."

These included the reference by Ted Cruz to his father's giving his heart to Jesus and Scott Walker's saying that he had been redeemed by the blood of Jesus.  Cruz also said that he received a "word from God" every day through the Scriptures.

There were several references to the abortion issue during the debate.  As Baptist Press lays out, these include:  Walker's claim to have defunded Planned Parenthood of state funds in Wisconsin "more than four years ago, long before any of these videos came out," and Mike Huckabee's statement that the next president should "invoke the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution" to protect unborn life, citing the rights to "due process and equal protection under the law."

Other instances pointed out by Baptist Press include: Jeb Bush saying he did not know that a charity on whose board he served until late 2014 gave tens of millions of dollars to Planned Parenthood, but said he is "completely pro-life" and advocated the protection of unborn life and of people nearing the end of life.  Also, Marco Rubio denied moderator Megyn Kelly's assertion that he had supported abortion in cases of rape and incest in the past. He is quoted as saying, "Future generations...will look back at this history of our country and call us barbarians for murdering millions of babies who we never gave ... a chance to live." And, Donald Trump claimed to be pro-life, saying he "evolved" on the issue - one factor, he said, was witnessing the life of a child who was nearly aborted and later became "a total superstar."

Two candidates expressed views relative to same-sex marriage: Rand Paul said, "I don't want my marriage or my guns registered in Washington. And if people have an opinion that is heartly [sic] felt, obviously they should be allowed to practice that and no government should interfere with them." John Kasich said that while he believes in traditional marriage, he said he accepts the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage and related that he had attended a gay wedding. He said that issue is one that is "planted to divide us."

Other faith-related moments in the debate, based on the transcript printed on the TIME.com website, included:  Kasich, regarding gay marriage, said that "God gives me unconditional love," and Megyn Kelly said that he invoked God when expanding Medicaid in the state of Ohio - he said that everyone had a right to their "God-given purpose."

Other instances included: Ben Carson referring to his philosophy on taxes as being akin to the Biblical view on tithing, Rubio citing God's blessings on the Republican party in fielding good candidates and on the country,  Huckabee declaring that America could again be "one nation under God," and Walker discussing the importance of following God's will.

So, there was plenty to listen to and learn from in the Republican debate Thursday night.  This event has given Christian voters who will participate in that primary a chance to be more informed.  We can all continue to formulate our prayerful choices in the March 1st primary.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The 3 - August 2, 2015

This week in my week-in-review feature, The 3, as students prepare to go back to school, you have the case of a Georgia school district which will be paying up after it settled with an atheist group over school prayer.  Also, Boy Scout leadership has voted to allow homosexual leaders.  And, 2 new videos have been released highlighting the sale of body parts from aborted babies, and the filmmakers have been ordered to stop releasing certain material by a court.

3 - Georgia school district to pay humanists in school prayer case

A public school district in Georgia will be paying a humanist organization $22,500 through its insurance carriers after the American Humanist Association sued the Hall County School System, based in Gainesville, Georgia, according to a report on The Christian Post website released this week.  The announcement of the settlement actually came on July 20, but some national Christian news sources distributed the story this past week.

The system allegedly allowed local high school coaches to lead their teams in prayers and included biblical passages on official team log books and promotional banners.  The Association sent warning letters to the district last August, identifying prayer traditions at Chestatee and North Hall high schools.

The district will be required to pay the plaintiffs' legal fees, which amount to $22,500, and requires the district to host a training session for its employees before the start of next school year to educate them on First Amendment rights and religious neutrality in school.

Superintendent William Schofield said that, "The Hall County School District admits to no violations of state or federal laws," adding, "The district will continue to hold the expectation that individuals within our organization abide by the laws of our land. The Hall County School District will make no monetary compensation to the plaintiffs. Insurance carriers are negotiating all questions regarding legal fees."

Some of the "violations" include: the wrestling coach allegedly cited Ephesians 6:12 to explain to his team that "Jesus was a wrestler," the Chestatee marching band director allowed the marching band to elect "student chaplains," the North Hall baseball coach led his team in prayer, Chestatee football coaches included a citation to Galatians 6:9 at the bottom of workout logs that were given to each student-athlete, and allowed Proverbs 27:17 to be included on a banner used at a game.

2 - Boy Scouts execs vote to allow homosexual leaders

In a vote with the expected outcome, the Executive Committee of the Boy Scouts of America voted on Monday to end its ban on homosexual leaders, according to a report on the WORLD Magazine website. The vote was 45-12.  BSA President Robert Gates had said banning homosexuals from serving as leaders was “no longer legally defensible.”

A statement issued earlier this month noted, “the BSA’s commitment to duty to God and the rights of religious chartered organizations to select their leaders is unwavering.” The article quotes John Stemberger, chairman of the Christian youth outdoor program Trail Life USA, who disputed that claim. He said the churches that stand for biblical values will find it increasingly difficult to operate in the structure of the Boy Scouts since so many activities are cooperative in nature.

In addition, the resolution affirms that homosexual acts can be “moral, honorable, committed, and respectful.” Stemberger said, “this opinion is wholly incompatible with historic Christian theology and ethics and will make it even more challenging for a church to integrate a BSA unit as part of a church’s ministry offerings.”

1 - 2 new hidden camera videos released exposing Planned Parenthood; court order stymies release of another

Two new videos involving the practice of Planned Parenthood marketing parts of pre-born babies whose lives had been taken were released by the Center for Medical Progress this week.  This is in addition to the two that had been previously released by the Center.

In this third video, according to Anika Smith of TheStream.org,  the video opens with a licensed phlebotomist who took a job as a “procurement technician” with the now-infamous fetal tissue company and biotech start-up StemExpress in late 2012. She said, "We’re asked to procure certain tissues like brain, liver, thymus, pancreas, heart, lungs, skin, pretty much anything on the fetus. It’s basically the trafficking of fetal tissues.”

For six months, her job was to identify pregnant women at Planned Parenthood who met criteria for fetal tissue orders and to harvest the fetal body parts after their abortions.

The report says that the video includes new admissions from top-level Planned Parenthood leadership about the illicit pricing structure.

The fourth video, released later in the week, features one of the Planned Parenthood officials from the third video, who is quoted as saying, according to another report by Smith on TheStream.org: “I know I’ve seen livers, I’ve seen stomachs, I’ve seen plenty of neural tissue. Usually you can see the whole brain come out. The video includes a conversation about how to handle the legal issues of selling these baby body parts, and suggests ways for Planned Parenthood to cover up its sale of aborted body parts. “Putting it under ‘research’ gives us a little bit of an overhang over the whole thing,” Ginde remarks. “If you have someone in a really anti state who’s going to be doing this for you, they’re probably going to get caught.” 

The video also features footage inside the lab. According to The Stream's report, "It is hard to watch, and many readers will find it disturbing. At one point, there’s a cracking sound of an aborted fetus’s skull, and Dr. Ginde says, 'It’s a baby,' as she points out the heart and kidneys and explains that a per-item pricing system is best for them."

In another development, ChristianHeadlines.com reports that a Los Angeles court has issued a temporary restraining order against the Center for Medical Progress, which will not be permitted to release any more videos allegedly showing the company involved with the criminal activity of selling aborted baby organs.  The story quotes a Fox News report that the doctors were reportedly collaborating with StemExpress, a middleman company that procures human tissue to researchers.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The 3 - July 26, 2015

This week in my week-in-review feature, The 3, there is good news out of Pakistan, where a woman sentenced to death under that nation's blasphemy laws has been given a reprieve by the national Supreme Court.  Also, a large cross atop a mountain in San Diego will be allowed to remain there, after years of court action were brought to a halt by a property transfer completed this week.  And, the Texas Supreme Court has struck down a judge's decision that had halted a repeal effort for a so-called anti-discrimination law centered on sexual orientation and gender identity.

3 - Pakistani woman's death sentence put on hold by high court

Asia Bibi, the first woman to be sentenced to death under blasphemy laws in Pakistan, has a chance to appeal that conviction, according to a piece on the Christianity Today website

She was sentenced in 2010, after allegedly making derogatory comments about the Prophet Muhammad during an argument with a Muslim woman. The article says that the Muslim woman had refused water from Asia Bibi, a colleague, on the grounds that it was “unclean” because it had been handled by a Christian. The Muslim woman and her sister were the only two witnesses in the case, but the defense failed to convince judges that their evidence lacked credibility.

The nation's highest court, the Supreme Court in Islamabad, the capital, has temporarily stayed her execution pending a full review of her case. Her lawyer, Saiful Malook, appeared in front of three Supreme Court judges at the first hearing earlier this week.  The CT story referenced apiece on the Morning Star News website, which quotes the attorney: "I believe that Asia Bibi’s case was not handled properly, but even now she has a good chance of being freed from her ordeal on the basis of inadmissible evidence."  He added, "We have a good case, and I’m sure the Supreme Court will consider the shoddy trial Asia Bibi has been subjected to and deliver justice to her."

According to CBN.com, Naveed Aziz with the British Pakistani Christian Association, said, "I am pleased with this decision," adding, "It is obvious that international pressure led to this amazing decision, and I thank all people who have called for her freedom. Sister Asia will have to spend more time in jail, but her freedom is now a real possibility and only a matter of time."

2 - Mount Soledad cross will stand; property on which it stands sold to private owner

Since 1954, a Veterans' memorial including a 27-foot cross has stood atop Mount Soledad, in San Diego.  According to Liberty Institute, the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial is the first Korean War Veterans Memorial on U.S. soil. It is on an 800-foot hilltop and includes a 29-foot cross with a plaque identifying it as a veterans memorial. It is surrounded by large granite walls that display photos and names of America’s veterans, along with various and diverse religious and secular symbols.

The Liberty Institute website tells the story.  For over 20 years, the memorial has been the subject of a lawsuit brought about by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which claimed the memorial’s cross violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. In January 2011, during the legal dispute over the memorial, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled the cross unconstitutional.

 In 2013, a Federal district judge ordered the cross to be torn down, but he did grant a stay, giving Liberty Institute and its client, the Mount Soledad Memorial Association, the opportunity to appeal. Liberty Institute and the MSMA did so a few days later, and in February 2014, the U.S. government joined Liberty Institute and the MSMA in appealing the ruling. The defendants asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, but the high court denied the request, pending the outcome of another appeal before the Ninth Circuit.

As the Liberty Institute website says:

After more than two decades of attempts to remove the cross had not achieved that result, and with the prospect of a long judicial battle ahead and defenders of the cross unwilling to yield, last year a legislative remedy was proposed. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 called for the federal government’s sale of the property to the MSMA, and this was passed by Congress and signed by the President, leading to the transfer of the land.

This week, the U.S. Government sold the land to the MSMA.  Hiram Sasser of Liberty Institute says: "Today’s actions will ensure that the memorial will continue to stand in honor of our veterans for decades to come. This is a great victory for the veterans who originally placed this memorial and the Korean War veterans the memorial honors." But, his colleague Jeff Mateer issues this warning: "This is a day to celebrate," adding, "But the work is not over in protecting veterans memorials from legal attacks by organizations opposed to veterans memorials containing religious imagery on public land."

1 - TX Supreme Court blocks Houston's "Equal Rights Ordinance"

I have reported in the past about these so-called SOGI - Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity - ordinances that some cities have passed, creating, under the guise of so-called "tolerance," special rights for individuals based on those components.  This could even extend to a person being allowed to use the bathroom of a gender that is the opposite of his or her biological gender.

It's a mess - and perhaps the most high-profile of these ordinances comes out of Houston, Texas, where the HERO (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance) last year passed the City Council, under the leadership of openly gay mayor Annise Parker.  According to a report on the Family Research Council website, "There was overwhelming opposition to the law in Houston and that triggered an effort by the citizens to repeal HERO by referendum." This campaign was led primarily by a group of pastors and churches who collected twice the number of signatures required to place the repeal vote on the ballot. However, Mayor Parker and City Attorney David Feldman said that the sufficient number of signatures had not been collected.  Furthermore, in preparing their defense, city officials subpoenaed various forms of communication by pastors who had opposed HERO.  The city later withdrew the subpoenas after national opposition arose.

As FRC reports, three months ago a Texas district court judge ruled that the petitioners had failed to gather enough valid signatures to get the repeal measure on the ballot. But, this week, that decision was overturned by the Texas Supreme Court, which concluded that the City Secretary had certified the petition and that brought the "City Council's ministerial duty" to go through the repeal process into effect. The Court held that the Houston City Council must stop enforcement of HERO and reconsider the ordinance. If it does not repeal HERO by August 24, 2015, then by that date "the City Council must order that the ordinance be put to popular vote during the November 2015 election."

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The 3 - July 19, 2015

On this week's edition of The 3, my week-in-review feature, the HHS contraception mandate is back in the news, and a non-profit organization that cares or the elderly has been told it must comply with the mandate to provide contraception and drugs that could induce abortion in their health care plans. Another story from the previous week involves the cancellation of a reality show featuring a high-profile Christian family.  And, the top story involves a video that shows a Planned Parenthood official discussing how parts from pre-born children who are being aborted are being removed and sold.

3 - Appeals Court rules against Little Sisters of the Poor in contraception mandate case

The mandate, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, that employers provide free contraception and drugs that could cause abortion in their health care plans, is still being contested in court, and non-profit organizations are attempting to find some relief from having to comply.

This week, the Little Sisters of the Poor received a ruling against them in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  According to the DailySignal.com website, the organization, with is a nonprofit, religious organization that serves the elderly worldwide, must abide by the mandate. The ruling also applied to four Christian universities in Oklahoma joining them in the suit.

The judges wrote: "Although we recognize and respect the sincerity of plaintiff’s beliefs and arguments, we conclude the accommodation scheme relieves plaintiffs of their obligations under the mandate and does not substantially burden their religious exercise under [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act] or infringe upon their First Amendment rights.”

Talk about a scheme - here's how the accommodation works for non-profit organizations, according to the Daily Signal website.  The scheme "requires religious organizations that object to the contraception mandate to notify the Department of Health and Human Services of religious-based objections. The government will then notify the insurance company or third-party administrator, which then provides coverage directly to the employees."

Little Sisters of the Poor says that participating in this “contraceptive delivery scheme” made them complicit and thus violated their religious beliefs. Instead, the group sought to be treated the same as houses of worship, like churches, which can exclude contraceptive coverage from insurance plans.

According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, there are 56 non-profit lawsuits against the mandate, with injunctions being granted in 23 of those, and 13 being denied.  Becket Fund attorney Daniel Blomberg, said in a statement, according to the Daily Signal: “We will keep on fighting for the Little Sisters, even if that means having to go all the way to the Supreme Court.”

Also, ChristianityToday.com reports that in the coming school year, Wheaton College will not offer a student health insurance plan (SHIP) due to the federal requirement under Obamacare that the plan offer "morally objectionable" products and services—abortifacient drugs and intrauterine devices (IUDs).   Earlier this month, the 7th Circuit had denied a request for a preliminary injunction to exempt the school from the mandate.

2 - Duggars' television show will not continue

Not surprisingly, the TLC cable channel announced that the reality show, "19 Kids and Counting," featuring the Duggar Family, has been cancelled, according to a report on the ChristianityToday.com website, which said that TLC also announced a new partnership with sex abuse prevention group Darkness to Light and anti-sexual violence organization RAINN to “raise awareness and educate parents and families about the issue.”  The channel plans to produce a documentary, and 2 members of the Duggar family, sisters Jill and Jessa, who were molested by their older brother, will be part of it.

The unfortunate series of events leading to the cancellation of the show can be accurately traced back to the teen years of Josh Duggar, the oldest child in the family, who inappropriately touched a number of young girls, including several of his sisters.  In attempting to emphasize to Josh the seriousness of these indiscretions, the parents, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, took him to the police. Recently, the police report was publicized, and that led to the eventual cancellation of the show.

CT reported that in a statement posted on their website, Jim Bob and Michelle thanked the film crew who’d worked on the show, which first aired in 2008.

They said, "With God’s grace and help Josh, our daughters and our entire family overcame a terrible situation, found healing and a way forward. We are so pleased with the wonderful adults they have all become,” adding, "It is our prayer that the painful situation our family went through many years ago can point people toward faith in God and help others who also have lived through similar dark situations to find help, hope and healing, as well.”

1 - Planned Parenthood exposed for profiting from pre-born babies' bodies, lawmakers vow to investigate

Despite attempts by the nation's largest abortion provider to spin the story otherwise, members of Congress are calling for an investigation of Planned Parenthood after an undercover video was revealed, showing senior director of medical research at Planned Parenthood, Deborah Nucatola, discussing how to maintain parts of a fetus for medical research during abortion procedures, according to a report on the ChristianHeadlines.com website, publishing a report from Religion News Service.

According to the site, the video was made by the Center for Medical Progress, which used two actors posing as employees at a biotech firm who met with Nucatola over lunch to discuss how to access the fetal tissue for research purposes. The center calls itself a group of citizen journalists dedicated to exposing injustices in the medical field.

The article says that the Center for Medical Progress’ two main claims are that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue to medical researchers and that the abortion rights group violates the Partial-Birth Abortion Act, which prohibits late-term abortions and certain procedures. Planned Parenthood says neither claim is true.

Now, it appears Congress will look into the matter. House Speaker John Boehner said Wednesday that a congressional committee would investigate the claims. He is quoted as saying, "When anyone diminishes an unborn child, we are all hurt, irreversibly so,” adding, “When an organization 
monetizes an unborn child – and with the cavalier attitude portrayed in this horrific video – we must all act.”

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The 3 - July 12, 2015

In this week's edition of The 3, my week-in-review feature, the attention turns to Oklahoma, where the Governor and Attorney General are standing against an order from the state's Supreme Court to remove a Ten Commandments monument.  Also, the couple who declined to back a cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony faces a heavy fine, a deadline to pay it, and an order to keep quite about the case.  And, the top story involves the response of public officials in various parts of the nation about the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage.

3 - OK governor says "no" to removal of 10 Commandments

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled last month that a Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol grounds, which was paid for using private funds, must be removed.  However, Governor Mary Fallin said on Tuesday that the monument isn't going anywhere.

That's according to a report on The Daily Signal website, which quotes the governor as saying: “Oklahoma is a state where we respect the rule of law, and we will not ignore the state courts or their decisions,” adding, “However, we are also a state with three co-equal branches of government.” Attorney General Scott Pruitt has requested the state Supreme Court rehear the case. After the initial court ruling, both Fallin and Pruitt made it clear they would request a rehearing and attempt to overturn the verdict.

The state ACLU had originally filed suit seeking to have the monument removed, claiming that the monument violated the Oklahoma State constitution, which prohibits public funding or property to go toward supporting a particular sect of religion, according to Article II, Section 5 of the constitution. The state Supreme Court initially ruled by a 7-2 margin that the monument was unconstitutional, based on the grounds that it is “obviously religious in nature and … an integral part of the Jewish and Christian faiths.” But, Pruitt said after the decision that the monument was in fact constitutional and that the court got it wrong.  He cited a similar monument in Texas the U.S. Supreme Court deemed to be constitutional.

Governor Fallin is quoted as saying: “Celebrating the historical importance of religions and religious values is not a new idea. Our nation is steeped in references to God and the rights He bestows on all men and women.” She added, “None of these represent state endorsement of or support for any religion. They are celebrations or visual representations of our culture and events of historical importance.”

Lawmakers have proposed legislation to allow the people of Oklahoma to vote on whether Article II, Section 5 of the constitution should be eliminated. As a result, the monument will remain intact as the state appeals the court’s decision and the legislature considers the proposed changes to the state constitution.

2 - Oregon bakers stare down deadline for paying heavy fine for not providing cake for same-sex wedding ceremony

The deadline is Monday (July 13) for Aaron and Melissa Klein to pay an exorbitant, $135,000 fine for merely declining to participate in a ceremony celebrating a same-sex marriage.  But, thanks to the overreaching of the Commissioner of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, the Kleins face a lein on their home if they don't pay up.

Aaron has been outspoken in that he does not intend to pay the fine, and he's not keeping quiet about it.  Not only had the Commissioner ordered the Kleins to pay, but he had ordered them not to speak out about the case.  Aaron said to Todd Starnes of Fox News, “This is intimidation and bullying - that’s exactly what it is,” adding, " They are trying to strong-arm me into handing over $135,000 to the two girls and if I win on appeal - they will never pay me back.”

According to attorney Anna Harmon, the Commissioner, whose name is Brad Avakian, "...is intent on using his office to root out thought and speech with which he personally disagrees." A Family Research Council Washington Update piece states that one investigation shows that the Bureau was already ethically compromised:

While the state was busy accusing Aaron and Melissa of bias, emails suggest their agencies were full of it. In emails, text messages, phone calls, and other documents, Daily Signal found a shocking amount of collusion between the Bureau and the largest LGBT activist group in the state: Basic Rights Oregon (BRO).

Aaron Klein is quoted as saying: "Brad and his cohorts at BOLI have overstepped their [authority] in requiring me to cease and desist from my constitutional freedom," adding, "I will fight them with every last breath I have." As FRC says, as tough as it's been on their family, Melissa says that it's an honor to be a voice for religious liberty. She says: "It's making us stronger and emboldening us to stand up to this. Aaron and I are fighting for every American out there -- for their freedom. We are not backing down at all."

1 - State officials in a variety of states refuse to marry gay couples

Meanwhile, state officials in various parts of America are refusing to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples:

In Ohio, a judge who also serves as an elder in his local congregation has refused to marry two lesbians this week based on his “personal and Christian beliefs” about marriage, according to ChristianNews.net.

Toledo Municipal Judge C. Allen McConnell, an elder at First Church of God in Columbus, declined to officiate for Carolyn Wilson and her partner last Monday because of his Christian faith. The women, upset about the matter, then went to the media to lodge a complaint.

In a statement released by the judge, McConnell stated: " The declination was based upon my personal and Christian beliefs established over many years,” adding, “I apologize to the couple for the delay they experienced and wish them the best.”  Another judge officiated over the two after McConnell declined, which should be the end of this story, but judging from past actions from gay couples wishing to get married or to force a creative artist to participate in the their ceremony, don't count on it.

In Kentucky, Governor Steve Beshear has ordered a county clerk to issue “marriage” licenses to same-sex pairs or resign from his position.  According to ChristianNews.net, the governor told Casey County clerk Casey Davis on Thursday those were his two choices.

Davis had met with the governor this week to outline his concerns and his convictions not to facilitate the sins of others. During the meeting, approximately 50 of Davis’ friends and family members gathered to pray at the capitol rotunda. Three other Kentucky clerks, Kenny Brown in Boone County, Kim Davis in Rowan County and Jason Denny in Anderson County, have likewise expressed their objections to issuing the licenses due to their Christian convictions.  The governor is quoted as saying: “One of Mr. Davis’ duties as county court clerk is to issue marriage licenses, and the Supreme Court now says that the United States Constitution requires those marriage licenses to be issued regardless of gender.”

In Texas, an East Texas county clerk has resigned rather than comply with the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling.  According to the Dallas Morning News, Rusk County Clerk Joyce Lewis-Kugle submitted her resignation letter Thursday. County Judge Joel Hale, Rusk County’s top administrator, said Lewis-Kugle wrote that she could not in good conscience issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Also, in Alabama, the Supreme Court had asked for briefs before a Monday deadline last week on the effect of the U.S. Supreme Court decision.  Liberty Counsel, which had been involved in the case that resulted in probate judges being prevented from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples after a singular Federal judge attempted to strike down Alabama's marriage amendment, filed a brief encouraging the state's high court: “When considering the Supreme Court’s Obergefell opinion, state Supreme Courts should contemplate the “decision’s substantial assault on the Rule of Law, Democracy, and Natural Law, and its necessary diminishment of the constitutional right to Free Exercise of Religion.”

The brief by Liberty Counsel points out that the Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to follow the U.S. Supreme Court opinion in the Dred Scott case, which said that blacks were not entitled to full protection as citizens. The Liberty Counsel brief also urged the Alabama Supreme Court to protect the religious freedom of its citizens.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

The 3 - July 5, 2015

The 3 returns this week with perspective and commentary regarding the U.S. Supreme Court's decision legalizing gay marriage across America, including some 30 states where the voters had approved amendments to the respective states' constitutions.   Also, this past week, the high court upheld, at least temporarily the "Choose Life" specialty license plates in a case from North Carolina. And, fires at African-American churches have been on the rise since the Charleston tragedy, and even though a fire this week is apparently due to lightning, two other fires over the last few weeks have been determined to be arson, and there are still concerns.

3 - Supreme Court upholds "Choose Life" license plates

The U.S. Supreme Court has issued yet another decision about specialty license plates.  This time, the high court overturned two lower court rulings about the "Choose Life" plates in the state of North Carolina, according to a report on the ChristianNews.net website.  The Supreme Court affirmed the state's right to issue “Choose Life” license plates.  The website had reported that in February of last year, a three-judge panel with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld a federal judge’s ruling that struck down the plates as being “at odds with the First Amendment.”  A U.S. District Court Judge had ruled in December 2012 that the plates amounted to viewpoint discrimination because the state did not also issue plates favoring abortion.

The website reports that the state first began offering “Choose Life” plates in 2011 after legislators approved a measure allowing the pro-life plates to be produced. Each plate is an extra $25, fifteen of which goes to the Carolina Pregnancy Care Fellowship, a non-profit organization that helps to fund pregnancy care centers throughout North Carolina.

The Fourth Circuit had said that, “Issuing a ‘Choose Life’ specialty license plate while refusing to issue a pro-choice specialty plate constitutes blatant viewpoint discrimination squarely at odds with the First Amendment.” But on Monday, the Supreme Court overturned the appeals court's ruling, ordering the Fourth Circuit to reconsider its decision in light of the high court’s ruling earlier this month in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans. The Supreme Court had ruled in Walker that state-issued license plates amount to government speech, and therefore, the state can reject messages that it does not endorse.

LifeNews.com quoted lead counsel Scott Gaylord, one of more than 2,500 private attorneys allied with the Alliance Defending Freedom and a professor of law at Elon University School of Law, who said: “Third parties like the ACLU cannot sanitize the public square of views a state communicates simply because they do not like those messages,” adding, “As the Supreme Court made clear in Walker, the attempt to censor a message like North Carolina’s ‘Choose Life’ message is inconsistent with both the purpose of the First Amendment and the Supreme Court’s government speech precedents.”

2 - Latest fire at African-American church caused by lightning, but some past fires at black churches ruled to be arson

This past week, news emerged of a seventh fire at a Southern African-American church since the death of 9 at a Charleston church.  Christianity Today relayed a CNN report that the FBI believes that the June 30 fire at Mount Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, SC was likely caused by lightning.

So far, in this latest round of church fires, at least two - College Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Briar Creek Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina - have been classified as arson.

A wave of church fires in 1996, which included many black churches, led Congress to pass the Church Arson Prevention Act and President Clinton to open a related Justice Department task force.

By 2000, that task force had investigated 945 church fires, according to a report from the Department of Homeland Security, with more than 305 convictions in 224 arsons and bombings. The number of arson declined following a spike in the mid-1990s.

There have been some strong comments from Christian leaders.

CT offered these comments:

Quest Church pastor Eugene Cho said on his Facebook page: "...Please pray for our sisters and brothers. Pray for their church communities. Pray for their hearts and minds. Pray for their safety. Pray for their local communities to literally surround them in both fierce and tender protection and love. Pray for their leadership. Pray for the investigation. Pray for justice. Pray for repentance. And yes, we are bold enough to keep praying for reconciliation."

Beth Moore tweeted, “The God Who Sees knows exactly who is burning Black churches.” She added, “With 1 unified voice let's ask Him to expose them at once & stop this madness.”
And, African-American professor Anthony Bradley from The King's College wrote on Twitter, "Black churches are burning again. No. 7 since #CharlestonShooting. This is why we talk about race so much."

1 - Response continues to Supreme Court gay marriage ruling

This week, there continued to be response to the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling that established a constitutional right to so-called same-sex marriage.  A number of Christian leaders, from the moment of the ruling on June 26 throughout this past week, have offered perspective on this ruling.

I had a chance this week to talk with Ryan Anderson, who serves with the Heritage Foundation.  In an article on The Daily Signal website from June 26, he wrote:

We must work to restore the constitutional authority of citizens and their elected officials to make marriage policy that reflects the truth about marriage. We the people must explain what marriage is, why marriage matters, and why redefining marriage is bad for society.

Anderson also relates that:

Because the court has inappropriately redefined marriage everywhere, there is urgent need for policy to ensure that the government never penalizes anyone for standing up for marriage. As discussed in my new book, “Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom,” we must work to protect the freedom of speech, association and religion of those who continue to abide by the truth of marriage as union of man and woman.

I also chatted with Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research, who had written a piece for Christianity Today, and offered these thoughts in it: "... before you engage in conversations about marriage on social media, in your churches, or in your communities, take a portion of time and devote it to prayer. Ask the Lord to reveal the needs of the people around you. Ask him to give you a spirit of compassion amidst the proclamation of truth. We rightly care about marriage, but we can't do it alone."

He also encourages believers to love their neighbors and to show and share the love of Jesus.

Emily Belz of WORLD News Group talked with me, as well, and gave some insight on the various justices' writings in a story she had written about the ruling, including Justice Kennedy's majority opinion and the dissents from four different justices.  Kennedy wrote:

“The history of marriage is one of both continuity and change. That institution—even as confined to opposite-sex relations—has evolved over time. … These new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution of marriage.
“The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality..."

There have been concerns over religious freedom protections for people of faith who disagree with same-sex marriage.  According to the WORLD report, Kennedy's opinion said:

“Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered..."

But, dissenting justices expressed their concern that there may not be adequate protections for people of faith who object to same-sex marriage.  Chief Justice Roberts wrote:

“Many good and decent people oppose same-sex marriage as a tenet of faith, and their freedom to exercise religion is—unlike the right imagined by the majority—actually spelled out in the Constitution. … The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to ‘advocate’ and ‘teach’ their views of marriage. The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to ‘exercise’ religion. Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses..."

This week has been one for Christians to process the implications of the Supreme Court ruling, and begin to consider the way forward.  It is important that we are steadfast in our commitment to our own marriages, as well as the institution, as defined by God.  It is also critical that we speak truth, even though the nation's highest court has found a "right" that stands in direct opposition to our Scriptural admonitions.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The 3 - June 21, 2015

This week on my week-in-review feature, The 3: there was a free speech issue before the U.S. Supreme Court, which yielded a positive outcome for an Arizona church.  Also, Southern Baptists gathered in Columbus, Ohio this week and emphasized spiritual awakening.  And, a tragedy in a church in Charleston, South Carolina left 9 people dead and spurred prayer gatherings to remember the dead and to cry out for a better way forward in the area of race relations.

3 - Supreme Court rules in favor of church in sign case

Good News Community Church is in Gilbert, Arizona.  It doesn't have a permanent building, and sought to notify residents about the church's meeting location by using signs.  According to a piece on the WORLD Magazine website, the town of Gilbert had a "...zoning ordinance that said such a “directional” sign to a religious meeting could only be posted 12 hours before the event, and up until one hour after. That meant the church couldn’t post signs showing directions to its Sunday morning service until after the sun went down the night before. The town regulations also required church directional signs to be no bigger than six square feet, while other political and ideological signs could be much bigger."

The church had filed a lawsuit, and lower federal courts, including the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, had ruled against Good News.  This past Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous ruling, said that the regulations violated free speech because, according to WORLD, the government was targeting certain types of speech, which was a “content-based” law.

Clarance Thomas wrote the majority opinion. He said, "On its face, the sign code is a content-based regulation of speech. We thus have no need to consider the government’s justifications or purposes for enacting the code to determine whether it is subject to strict scrutiny.”  The WORLD article stated:
In order for a government regulation to survive strict scrutiny, it must demonstrate it furthers a “compelling government interest” and is “narrowly tailored.” The court ruled the Gilbert ordinance was neither. Because the town allowed unlimited large political and ideological signs, it couldn’t argue the small church signs were particularly distracting to drivers or ruining the town’s aesthetics.
Thomas wrote that the town can still regulate signs for safety and aesthetics, but it must not base its regulations on the signs’ content.

Emily Belz, who wrote the article for WORLD, was a guest on The Meeting House to discuss the ruling.  You can access that conversation here.

2 - Southern Baptists gather in Columbus, Ohio, include prayer emphasis

The Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting in Columbus, Ohio this past week, and according to a piece on the Baptist Press website, there were a number of significant aspects of the meeting.  Perhaps the most notable was the emphasis on spiritual awakening. The report says that a Tuesday night prayer gathering led by SBC President Dr. Ronnie Floyd, drew an estimated 7,000 Southern Baptists, who spent two hours asking God for a third Great Awakening in America and the global advance of the Gospel. Also, the gathering was watched by an additional 8,000 people online and broadcast on Daystar television.

In his presidential address, Dr. Floyd called on Southern Baptists to provide spiritual and moral leadership amid a time of crisis in the world that also is "our most defining hour as Southern Baptists."  There was also a resolution on "revival and spiritual awakening" that included language that Southern Baptists "faithfully and fervently plead with our great God to open the windows of heaven and come down among His people with a fresh filling of His Spirit."

There was also a resolution on the "public witness on marriage," which called the Supreme Court to "uphold the right of the citizens to define marriage as exclusively the union of one man and one woman." The resolution said that Southern Baptists will not waver in their defense of traditional marriage regardless of how the court rules. The marriage resolution said, "the religious liberty of individual citizens or institutions should not be infringed as a result of believing or living according to the biblical definition of marriage."  There were two resolutions that spotlighted religious persecution, and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC announced it would open an international religious freedom office.

Ethnic diversity was also the topic of a resolution, emphasizing a rededication to the work of racial reconciliation.

This year, there were 5,407 registered messengers, which was up from 5,294 in Baltimore last year. There was also a celebration of nearly 60 missionaries during the first-ever joint missions service of the International and North American Mission Boards.

1 - Churches in Charleston stand together after tragedy

On Wednesday, a young man entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina, which was having a prayer and Bible study meeting.  An hour later, 9 people were dead.  The next day, 21-year-old Dylann Roof was arrested for the tragedy at the Mother Emanuel AME Church.

The Christian Post website reported that Christian leaders and organizations condemned the killing, including the acknowledgement of the "sin of racism" in America, as more than 4,000 residents and leaders of different faiths came together to pray for the city.

A statement from the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of Southern Baptist Convention said, "There is hardly a more vivid picture of unmasked evil than the murder of those in prayer." The statement from ERLC President Russell Moore and 3 other leaders of the denomination said, "This act of bloodshed is wicked and more than wicked. It is literally satanic, as our Lord taught us that the devil is a 'murderer from the beginning' (John 8:44)," adding, "Virtually every week we see yet another incident pointing to the sin of racism in American society, from unarmed African-American men and children killed in the streets to worshippers gunned down in their pews...This must end. And the church of Jesus Christ must lead the way."

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, also issued a statement, which included these words: "The Charleston massacre once again proves that there exists a war between darkness and light. When hatred and violence emerge to silence peace and love, all Americans, all humanity suffers..." He condemned "all vestiges of hatred and intolerance" and affirmed, "Silence is not an option."

A Meeting House Front Room blog post included some local response. Here is some of the material that I covered, taken from The Post and Courier:
Bursts of loud applause punctuated Thursday’s midday prayer vigil honoring the nine victims of Charleston’s first modern mass shooting. Heartfelt praise and loud singing characterized the evening vigil at Royal Missionary Baptist Church. And at Second Presbyterian Church, worshippers filled the pews for a somber prayer service before marching with tears and flowers to a memorial at the shooting site.
Here are some quotes from a special service at Morris Brown AME Church:
Rt. Rev. Dr. John Richard Bryant, senior bishop of the AME Church, spoke of the resiliency of the faithful. He said, "the young man picked the wrong place," then addressed what he called the elephant in the room: “the growth of senseless violence.”

Mayor Joe Riley said that the Emanuel church was already a sacred place and declared, "And now it’s even more sacred. Sacred because of the lives lost in it while in prayer.” He added, "It isn’t when we fall that counts, it’s how we get up...We will look back on (this tragedy) as a time when love and goodness came together to overcome evil."

Gov. Nikki Haley said, “As all eyes of this country are on our state and our city...what happened in that church is not the people of South Carolina.” She added, "If this can happen in church, we’ve got some praying to do. If there’s one thing we can do in South Carolina it’s pray. ... We are a state of faith, we are a state of prayer, we are a state of love.”
Bishop Harry Jackson, Pastor of Hope Christian Church outside Washington, DC, and co-founder of The Reconciled Church, joined me on The Meeting House to discuss the Charleston shooting and a special prayer motorcade even that had been planned for Baltimore this past Saturday.  You can access that audio here.  Also, Dr. Alveda King, niece of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Director of African-American Outreach for Priests for Life joined me.   Audio from that conversation will be available soon.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The 3 - June 14, 2015

In this week's edition of The 3, my week-in-review feature, a look at news emerging from Africa, where dozens of Christians from Eritrea have been kidnapped by Islamic State.  Also, Michigan's governor has signed into law 3 bills designed to protect faith-based agencies that provide adoption services from having to violate their convictions.  And, pro-life legislation from Texas got a boost in a Federal appeals court - the same week that it was announced that a bill that would ban abortions at the stage at which research has proven that an unborn child can feel pain would be taken up by the U.S. Senate,

3 - News spreads of 88 Eritrean Christians kidnapped by ISIS

Earlier this week, on its website, the Christian advocacy organization Open Doors published an article on the plight of 88 Christians in Eritrea who were kidnapped by ISIS.  The organization says that it has been reported that there are numerous children and at least 12 women.

These Christians were reportedly fleeing Eritrea, ranked #9 on the Open Doors World Watch List, due to persecution and human rights violations (as noted by the just released UN report), only to be kidnapped by the Islamic State.   Open Doors is in this region helping believers who are facing the same uncertain and terrifying circumstances that these 88 have fell victim to.   Eritrea is located in northern Africa.

The article also mentions similar events from earlier this year of the kidnapping and later killing of the 21 Egyptian and 28 Ethiopian Christian martyrs.

The website says:

The Islamic State is growing in influence in Libya and throughout this region. Throughout North Africa, the Middle East and even parts of Asia, unprecedented persecution has been occurring. To create a way for you to advocate for those throughout this region, Open Doors has a petition for you to sign, asking President Obama to take action and address the urgent security concerns of believers in this region by appointing a Special Envoy.

According to its Facebook page, in the coming week, Open Doors will be launching a prayer campaign during the month of Ramadan (June 18th - July 17th) to unite Christians around the world in prayer for the persecuted church and for Muslims to have an encounter with Jesus during this time. A prayer guide is available - for more information, go to www.opendoorsusa.org

2 - New MI law protects religious freedom rights of adoption agencies

This week, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed 3 bills designed to protect adoption agencies in the state from being forced, in opposition to their deeply held religious beliefs, to allow certain couples to adopt.  In a piece on The Daily Signal website from Sarah Torre and Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation, they comment:

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has signed into law three bills protecting the freedom of private adoption agencies to operate in accordance with their beliefs, including that children deserve a married mother and father. This is good public policy. The Michigan law comes on the same day the North Carolina legislature protected the religious liberty of clerks and magistrates in that state over the governor’s veto.

The writers make the point that, "...allowing private adoption providers to operate according to their own values—including declining to place children in unmarried or same-sex households—does not prevent public agencies or other private providers from choosing to do so."  They stress that, "Foster care and adoption policy should seek to increase the number of families willing to foster and potentially adopt children. These agencies should be free to operate according to their values, as they have for decades, especially concerning their reasonable and religiously informed beliefs about marriage."

A report on the MLive.com website quotes the governor: "The state has made significant progress in finding more forever homes for Michigan kids in recent years and that wouldn't be possible without the public-private partnerships that facilitate the adoption process."  He added, "We are focused on ensuring that as many children are adopted to as many loving families as possible regardless of their makeup."

1 - TX abortion law continues to win in court, US Senate to take up 20-week abortion ban

A 2013 Texas pro-life law, HB 2, survived a court challenge in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this past week.  Baptist Press reported on how contested portions of the law were upheld by the appeals court.  It quotes the Texas Values pro-family organization, which said in a news release that the standards prescribed in the law are “steps to protect women who go into abortion facilities from being less likely to jeopardize their own lives.”  The leader of that organization, Jonathan Saenz, is quoted as saying, "The court’s decision ensures that abortion clinics must uphold basic health standards -- standards that are required of other surgical centers in the state.”

The article noted that a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court noted in their published opinion that many of the ambulatory surgical center (ASC) standards “seem benign and inexpensive."

The piece said that, "The challenged portion of the law upheld in this most recent court decision joins another provision challenged and upheld in court regarding the requirement that doctors performing abortions must have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the location where an abortion is performed."

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill in Washington, CitizenLink reports that:

Sen. Lindsey Graham announced the Senate will take up the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. The bill stops abortions after 20 weeks – the time at which preborn babies can feel pain.

Pro-life leaders, including Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List, joined Graham at a news conference in support of the bill.

“Right now in our country, a child can be killed in his or her mother’s womb for any reason, at any point, up until the moment of birth,” Dannenfelser explained. “We are one of only seven nations in the world, including China and North Korea, to allow such brutality. We are a better nation than this.”

The Senate is expected the pass the measure, while it is anticipated that the President will veto the bill.