Sunday, January 25, 2015

The 3 - January 25, 2015


This week's edition of The 3, my week-in-review feature, highlights the latest action from the fire chief in Atlanta, who lost his job after publishing a book that presented a Biblical view of sexuality. Also, another Federal judge has struck down a state marriage amendment in another Southern state - this time in Alabama.  And, the top story: a throng of marchers gathered in Washington, DC to stand for the right to life for pre-born babies, with a special concentration on those children with disabilities.

3 - Former Atlanta Fire Chief fights back

An attorney representing fired Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that the former chief was terminated due to his religious beliefs, claiming that this action violated his civil rights.

According to an article on The Blaze website, Alliance Defending Freedom "Allied attorney Jonathan Crumly filed an EEOC complaint on behalf of Chief Cochran yesterday based on the City’s clear religious discrimination against the Chief,” according to a statement by ADF senior counsel Jeremy Tedesco.  He added, ”Americans are guaranteed the freedom to live without fear of losing their jobs because of their beliefs and thoughts.”

The piece related that Cochran, in his filing, recounted his version of events, noting that he served as fire chief for nearly five years and that his problems with city officials began on Nov. 24, 2014, when he was suspended without pay following controversy over a book that included a section on sinful behavior, including sexuality.  The Blaze article referenced an interview with Todd Starnes of Fox News, in which the former chief said that he did “not single out homosexuality” in his book.  He is quoted as saying, “I simply spoke to sex being created by God for pro-creation and He intended it to be between a man and a woman in holy matrimony – and that any other sex outside of that is sin,”

Cochran said that he was later informed that an investigation the government conducted while he was out of work found zero instances in which he had discriminated against other staff members, but he alleges that his faith became a factor in the dismissal process. In the complaint, he stated, “The book expresses my deeply held religious convictions on many subjects,” he concluded. “I believe that I have been discriminated against because of my religion — Christian — in violation of Title Vll of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended.”

The mayor of Atlanta is apparently trying to contend that the chief was fired because he disobeyed orders. Mayor Kasim Reed claimed at a press conference earlier this month that Cochran’s judgement was at the center of his firing.

The mayor said he wasn’t consulted before the book was written and that Cochran, who spoke out about his battle with the city to religious groups when he was reportedly told not to, violated policies by not having the book cleared by an ethics panel, as required by the city.

Cochran claims Atlanta ethics officer Nina Hickson gave him verbal permission to write the book and that he had given a copy to Reed’s office last January, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

However, according to Christianity Today, the mayor had said when the book came to the attention of city officials, that he worried that Cochran’s positions in the book would lead to accusations of discrimination. It referenced a USA Today story, quoting the mayor as saying, "I want to be clear that the material in Chief Cochran's book is not representative of my personal beliefs, and is inconsistent with the administration's work to make Atlanta a more welcoming city for all citizens—regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, race, and religious beliefs."

2 - One judge negates hundreds of thousands of voters regarding Alabama's marriage law

Late Friday afternoon, a Federal judge in Mobile ruled that Alabama's marriage amendment, approved by 81 percent of the voters, is unconstitutional.

Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council is quoted as saying, "This federal judge is throwing out the votes of the people of Alabama and attempting to shut down the debate over marriage. In exercising their right to vote, Alabama voters overwhelmingly sent a message that that they want to see society rebuild and strengthen marriage - not have it redefined by unelected judges.

He also said that, "There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that empowers this federal judge to overturn Alabama's marriage amendment nor any basis for the U.S. Supreme Court to impose a 50 state same-sex 'marriage' mandate."

According to AL.comU.S. District Judge Ginny Granade ruled that the Alabama Marriage Protection Act and the amendment that later enshrined it in the state constitution both were unconstitutional.   The Ballotpedia.com website indicates that over 697,000 Alabamians voted in favor the amendment in 2006.

Also, AL.com reported that the Alabama Probate Judges Association issued a statement Saturday night saying despite Friday's federal court ruling, the state's probate judges cannot issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Al Agricola, attorney for the Alabama Probate Judges Association, stated in a press release. "The legal effect of this decision is to allow one person in one same sex marriage that was performed in another state to adopt their partner's child. There is nothing in the judge's order that requires probate judges in Alabama to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples."

And on Sunday, according to AL.com, Judge Granade issued a 14-day stay of her ruling. She reportedly rejected arguments by the Alabama Attorney General's Office that the state likely would win on appeal. But she agreed to give attorneys two weeks to make their case to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If it does not act in that time to extend or lift the stay, the order will take effect on Feb. 9. The judge said she also would issue a follow-up opinion clarifying the original order.

1 - Hundreds of thousands take part in March for Life, House passes ban on taxpayer funding of abortion

The 42nd March for Life was held in the nation's capital on Thursday, and another large turnout participated.  According to a report on the LifeSiteNews.com website, "hundreds of thousands of pro-life activists gathered beneath sunny skies and surprisingly warm temperatures to hear speeches from pro-life politicians and prominent movement leaders."

March for Life President Jeanne Monahan Mancini stated that, "I’m so grateful” for those who traveled from around the country and around the world to join the march. She explained that this year’s theme, “Every Life is a Gift,” refers especially to babies with prenatal diagnoses of potentially disabling conditions like Down syndrome who are aborted at a much higher rate than the general population.

The article reported that several lawmakers spoke, including Rep. Kathy McMorris-Rogers of Washington state, the mother of a boy with Down syndrome.  She promised that despite the Republican GOP leadership’s eleventh-hour decision to refrain from voting on the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban most abortions after 20 weeks, she and her pro-life colleagues are committed to its passage, along with the passage of a healthcare conscience rights act. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said, “The Senate will stand shoulder to shoulder with the House as you move forward legislation that protects life.”

Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey touted the importance of the passage of the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, saying, "That legislation is historic...It will end our forced complicity, our funding of abortion.”  In addition to those 3 Republican lawmakers, Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois declared, “Everyone needs to come together to protect life,” adding, “Women deserve better than abortion.”

Also, it was reported that as the March itself began, organizers announced the winners of the annual student contest, themed “Every Selfie has a Story.” They then introduced this year’s march leaders, the entire student body and faculty of Shanley High School in Fargo, ND - 400 total people, who filled eight buses and drove 24 hours straight to carry the banner at the front of the march.

Senior Julia Johnson said, “As a school, we are humbled and honored to have been selected to hold the banner for this year’s March for Life.” In a brief speech, Julia proclaimed, "Our cause in defending life is a noble one,” and added, “We are living in a modern-day holocaust … that takes the lives of 3,000 babies each day, more than one million babies each year.”

On Wednesday night, the eve of the March for Life, a vote that was timed with that massive event was suddenly cancelled, the vote on the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which The Daily Signal website describes as a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks, except in cases where rape or incest had been reported to authorities.

The piece quotes a Politico report that said, "The evening switch comes after a revolt from a large swath of female members of Congress, who were concerned about language that said rape victims would not be able to get abortions unless they reported the incident to authorities."

As The Daily Signal points out, the bill passed in the House in 2013 without controversy over the exceptions. And a Quinnipiac poll asked this question: “In 2013 the House of Representatives approved legislation that would ban virtually all abortions nationwide after 20 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases of rape and incest that are reported to authorities...Would you support or oppose such legislation?”

In response to that specific question, 60 percent of Americans, including 59 percent of women, said they would support such legislation in response to the poll, which was released in November. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The 3 - January 18, 2015

This week's edition of The 3 includes two cases involving the U.S. Supreme Court - this week, the high court announced it would take up the topic of gay marriage, and it heard arguments in a case surrounding a small church's free speech rights.  The other story involves a university that had planned to allow a Muslim call to prayer to be broadcast at its chapel, then reversed its decision.

3 - U.S. Supreme Court will tackle gay marriage

It was just a matter of time - in light of numerous Federal judicial circuits striking down state marriage amendments, coupled with one circuit upholding the traditional definition of marriage, the U.S. Supreme Court announced Friday that indeed it would take up the issue.

According to the WORLD News Group website, the court in its order said it will consider two questions: One, whether the 14th Amendment requires states to license same-sex marriages; and two, whether states must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

The court has consolidated four marriage cases from the states in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the definition of marriage as one man and one woman. Those states are Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky.   WORLD reports that the justices will hear an exceptional two-and-a-half hours of arguments on those cases. Usually the court only allots one hour of arguments for each case. The hearings likely will take place toward the end of April, and the court should issue an opinion at the end of June.

2 - Duke University cancels scheduled Muslim prayers 

This week, officials at Duke University decided to cancel plans to allow the Muslim call to prayer to be broadcast from the bell tower of the chapel on its campus, according to a report on the Religion News Service website, which quoted Michael Schoenfeld, a Duke vice president for public affairs and government relations, who said in a statement the school remains committed to “fostering an inclusive, tolerant and welcoming campus” for all students but “it was clear that what was conceived as an effort to unify was not having the intended effect.”

One powerful voice speaking out against the call to prayer was Franklin Graham, who said that the call includes the words “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great,” which was shouted by Islamist militants during last week’s deadly attacks across Paris.  He said on his Facebook page, "As Christianity is being excluded from the public square and followers of Islam are raping, butchering, and beheading Christians, Jews, and anyone who doesn’t submit to their Sharia Islamic law, Duke is promoting this in the name of religious pluralism.”

A Christianity Today piece on the incident and the broader issue of Christians allowing other faith groups to use their facilities said that on its website, the chapel is described as “a Christian church of uniquely interdenominational character and purpose,” welcoming people of “all faiths and circumstances.”

The dean of Duke Divinity School, Richard Hays, raised concerns about the use of the chapel for the Muslim call to prayer if it’s seen as a Christian church (given its history and iconography), rather than a neutral space on campus.

“There are serious questions...about the wisdom and propriety of allowing Duke chapel to be used for this purpose,” he said in a statement. “Despite some common beliefs and traditions, Christianity and Islam stand in significant theological tension with one another.”  The CT article points out that Duke was founded by Methodists and now describes its Christian ties as “historical and symbolic,” emphasizing its independence from the United Methodist Church.

1 - U.S. Supreme Court considers AZ sign ordinance 

In Gilbert, Arizona, there is a sign ordinance that has been challenged by Good News Community Church, which, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom, rents space in temporary locations for its weekly service.  The church had used small, temporary signs to invite and direct the community to its services.

ADF states that:
The Town of Gilbert Sign Code imposes strict limits on the size, location, number, and duration of the church’s signs. It does not impose the same restrictions on political, ideological, and homeowners’ association signs. If the church violates the code, Pastor Reed could be fined and possibly jailed.
The text of the town’s code regulates signs based on what they say, and the town is applying the code in a manner thatovertly singles out the church’s religious speech for discriminatory treatment. Both are impermissible under the First Amendment. 
The church has argued that the code is an unconstitutional restriction on its First Amendment right to free speech.  On Monday of this week, the case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman is quoted as saying, "...No one’s speech is safe if the government is allowed to pick free-speech winners and losers based on the types of speech government officials prefer. The Supreme Court has a long history of ensuring that the government treats all speech in a content-neutral manner. That’s why we trust the court will not allow the town of Gilbert to continue giving preferential treatment to certain messages while marginalizing others."

The church's pastor, Clyde Reed, is quoted as saying that the church "learned that if we violate the strict rules on our signs, we face criminal fines and even possible jail time. This whole experience has been shocking to me – our signs inviting people to church are very important yet are treated as second-class speech."

The church and ADF are seeking a reversal of a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which sided with the Town of Gilbert.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The 3 - January 11, 2015

In this week's edition of The 3, my week-in-review feature, I outline several developments on the issue of same-sex marriage.  Also, laws that are called, "non-discrimination" but that actually provide special rights for homosexual and transgender individuals are finding less traction, and two cities halted forward progress of these types of ordinances this week.   And, the top story involves the firing of the Atlanta Fire Chief for comments made in a Christian book that he has published.

3 - Gay marriage: licenses issued in FL, 5th Circuit hears cases, Supreme Court passes - for now 

There was quite a bit of action regarding same-sex marriage this week.  County clerks in some Florida counties began to issue marriage licenses, in accordance with a ruling last year by a Federal judge that the state's marriage amendment was unconstitutional.  The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had placed the decision on hold, but that "stay" expired this week and was not renewed.

Meanwhile, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit heard oral arguments Friday on marriage laws in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.   A report on the NOLA.com website said that, "gay marriage advocates seemed to find a receptive audience in the 5th Circuit U.S. Appeals on Friday (Jan. 9)..." The piece went on: "Two of the three judges on the panel -- Obama appointee James Graves and Reagan appointee Patrick Higginbotham -- asked skeptical questions about the state's position in defense of the ban, barely letting attorney Kyle Duncan, representing Louisiana, conclude his opening remarks."

The report says that:
Outside the courthouse, Gene Mills of the conservative Louisiana Family Forum said he expected a ruling in favor of the state's marriage ban, and that the courts should not decided [sic] the definition of marriage.
Mills said he expected that the Supreme Court, however, would have the last word on marriage.
The website, Click2Houston.com, quoted Jonathan Saenz, an attorney and the president of Texas Values, as saying, "What happened today is only a few people are going to be involved in the decision about whether or not marriage gets redefined. But through the demo process, the people of Texas have settled this issue."

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton released a statement following the hearing. He said, “In 2005, Texans overwhelmingly supported a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman."  He added, "I am committed to defending the Texas Constitution, the will of our citizens and this sacred institution."

And, USA Today reports that the U.S. Supreme Court "delayed action Friday on its most closely watched deliberation -- whether to rule this year on states' remaining bans against same-sex marriage.

After considering petitions filed by gay and lesbian couples in five states that still prohibit gay and lesbian nuptials, the justices did not agree to hear any of them. The article said that their decision could come next week.

The piece said that:
Although the decision did not come Friday, the justices' hands most likely will be forced by a split among federal appellate courts, created when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit upheld four states' marriage bans in November. While gays and lesbians can marry in 36 states, most recently including Florida, the practice is banned in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, along with 10 other states. 

2 - Communities pull back on so-called "non-discrimination" laws

After the debacle involving the Houston non-discrimination ordinance that was passed last year and the rescinding of a similar ordinance in Fayetteville, Arkansas by the voters, it appears that the trend toward passing such legislation could be heading in a different direction.

According to the Family Research Council, this week, in Starkville, Mississippi, members of the city council voted 5-2 to rescind a special rights ordinance.  FRC states that, "People on the ground knew there was storm brewing when Human Rights Campaign came to Starkville and convinced the Mayor to back it."  The Columbus Dispatch reports that the Mayor Parker Wiseman issued a veto on Friday. That veto would be overturned if the five-vote block holds.

And, in Glendale, Arizona
on Tuesday, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom, the City Council postponed a vote on a proposed ordinance, which it says is similar to Houston’s so-called “non-discrimination” law and could be fraught with First Amendment problems. The council held a closed-session workshop Tuesday to discuss the proposed law and recommended hiring a facilitator to research the issue before proceeding further.

ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley is quoted as saying, “Citizens should always have a say on laws that could greatly affect them. The Glendale City Council was right not to pass this ordinance without taking into account the concerns of its citizens and the serious ramifications for religious freedom...Other cities in the nation have found such ordinances unnecessary, and we hope Glendale will reach the same conclusion after further research.”

1 - Atlanta fire chief fired for writing book consistent with his Christian beliefs

It's been quite a week for Kelvin Cochran.  He came back to work this week as Atlanta's Fire Chief after a 30-day suspension, due to his publishing of a book including Biblical views of sexuality, including its opposition to homosexuality.  Later in the day that he returned, he found himself without a job.

Christianity Today reports that Cochran was a 34-year veteran of various fire departments (including a 2009 stint as President's Obama's pick for the nation's fire administrator) and deacon at a Southern Baptist megachurch, Cochran wrote Who Told You That You Were Naked?, aimed at Christian men and titled after God’s query to Adam after the Fall.

Mayor Kasim Reed is quoted as saying that, "I want to be clear that the material in Chief Cochran's book is not representative of my personal beliefs, and is inconsistent with the administration's work to make Atlanta a more welcoming city for all citizens—regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, race, and religious beliefs."

The Christianity Today piece states that though Cochran stated he had prior permission to release the book, Reed said it was done without proper review and that Cochran violated the terms of his suspension by publicly defending his stance, according to reports from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Georgia Baptist Convention has placed a petition on its website, and is calling on the city to:
  • Acknowledge Chief Cochran’s First Amendment Rights.
  • Make a public apology for the termination and grief it has caused the Chief and his family.
  • Restore Chief Cochran’s position and reputation as an honorable Fire Chief.
In the introduction to the petition, it says that, "The Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) is calling on the Christian community to “stand up for biblical principles and fellow believers who are punished or marginalized for their faith.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution quotes the former chief as saying, "LGBT citizens deserve the right to express their beliefs regarding sexual orientation, and deserve to be respected for their positions without hate and discrimination.” He added, “But Christians also have the right to express their beliefs regarding sexual orientation and be respected for their position without hate and without discrimination. In the United States, no one should be vilified hated or discriminated against for expressing their beliefs.”

A rally in support of Chief Cochran has been scheduled for the Capitol Rotunda in Atlanta on Tuesday, January 13th at 1:30pm.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

The 3 - January 4, 2015

This first edition of The 3 for 2015 includes a recent ruling from the Rhode Island Supreme Court against firefighters who had been forced to take part in an event that they believed violated their religious freedom.  Also, in this edition of my week-in-review feature, the first of 3 Passion events in the U.S. took place this weekend in Atlanta.  The top story involves the conclusion of an era, with the cessation of Mars Hill Church on Wednesday.

3 - Rhode Island Supreme Court: firefighters must march in gay pride parade

The news was released this past week, and reported on a number of sites, including
ChristianNews.net, that the Supreme Court of Rhode Island has ruled that the religious rights of two firefighters were not violated when they were forced to participate in a “gay pride parade” a decade ago despite their objections.

Theodore Fabrizio and Stephen Deninno were assigned by city officials to drive a fire truck in the 2001 parade, but when the men asked if they could be reassigned as they do not agree with the homosexual lifestyle, they were refused. The men then carried out their assignment against their will, but state that they experienced sexual harassment, including sexual propositions and “at least 60 profanity-laced anonymous phone calls,” from parade attendees and their co-workers both during and after the event.

The ChristianNews.net report states that Fabrizio and Deninno asserted that their constitutional rights - namely their rights to freedom of religion and freedom of speech - had been violated by being forced to participate in an event that conflicted with their convictions.

Litigation has been transpiring for more than a decade, and finally the state supreme court threw out the firefighters' lawsuit, saying that the city did not violate the men’s constitutional rights because the assignment was “legitimate.”

Justice William Robinson wrote, according to the report that the,“...appearance in the parade, solely as members of the Providence Fire Department, did not constitute a form of expression on their part...Rather, it was simply the accomplishing of a task assigned to an engine company of the Providence Fire Department, and the individuals chosen to carry out that assignment cannot be said to have engaged in personal speech by carrying out their work as public servants.”

The judge said that there was no case law that supported “the proposition that, in such specific circumstances, employees’ rights are violated if they happen to possess religious objections to the beliefs of the group with which an otherwise legitimate work assignment requires brief interaction.”

2 - First Passion conference of 2015 helps young adults kick off new year

Two years ago, the last Passion conference that was held at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta drew over 60,000 people, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  Last year, the Atlanta Passion event moved to another weekend and a smaller venue, and a Houston event was added.

This year, Passion is back on the week of New Year's in Atlanta's Philips Arena, and will present another Atlanta event in two weeks.  The Houston event is coming up the first week of February. The website is www.268generation.com.

According to a report on The Christian Post website:
Over 20,000 university students and leaders from around the world converged in downtown Atlanta Friday evening to kick off the Passion 2015 conference, the first of three, 3-day gatherings hosted by Passion this year focused on making Jesus famous while benefitting local communities and impacting the world.
Attendees at this first Passion 2015 gathering represent twenty-two nations and over 1,000 different universities. The majority of conference participants are students and young professionals ages 18-25, along with pastors and church leaders attending with their groups. In addition, over 1,000 volunteers – referred to as "Door Holders" – are assisting with various logistical needs throughout the conference.
According to the Post, Passion founder Giglio emphasized that the Gospel message is not simply one of forgiveness of sins, but also a call to surrender because of Christ's finished work on the cross.  He said, "We live in a 'me' and 'my' generation, but we are the Jesus generation united for His fame...We rally around the life and death of Jesus. We pray tonight that we will receive the Gospel and relinquish our lives in total surrender."

According to the Passion website, other scheduled speakers included John Piper and Francis Chan, with special music from the Passion worship band.

1 - Mars Hill Church comes to end, Warren speaks at last service

The conclusion of one of the top stories impacting the Christian community in 2014 took place on Wednesday, the date set for the dissolution of the Mars Hill Church congregations.  Mars Hill is based in Seattle.

Warren Throckmorton has chronicled the demise of Mars Hill and the circumstances leading up to the resignation of Mark Driscoll, and he points out on his blog at Patheos.com that:
Actually, the church doesn’t cease as an entity on December 31. There are buildings to sell and resources to distribute. There might be mediation or a lawsuit to settle. There will be donation statements to mail out. Speaking of money, there will be offerings to count and process.
Rick Warren of Saddleback Church delivered the final sermon via video. CharismaNews.com quotes the famous pastor as saying, "Now the fact is, in our broken world, sometimes everything seems to go wrong or fall apart all at once." It reports that the large, multi-site church will now dissolve into independent congregations.

Seattle television station KING5 reported that Mars Hill Pastor Mark Driscoll "resigned earlier this year after months of controversy regarding his treatment of churchgoers and some of his financial decisions."  It said that Pastor Matthias Haeusel made some brief remarks to the congregation prior to Rick Warren's words and called the final service a bittersweet end.

He said, "Lot of people have been loved real well at this church. Lot of people have come to faith at this church...I talked to someone this morning who had been here for 14 years and actually had a radically different trajectory from when before they came here to after."

Haeusel said that he prays for Mark Driscoll often. Driscoll has not announced what his plans are yet. Despite some of the problems of the past year Haeusel said that he hopes people remember the good.

"God did great things even through broken people," Haeusel said. "If we look at scripture that is what God always does, because he is God not because we are great."

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The 3 - December 28, 2014

This week's edition of The 3, my week-in-review feature, highlights a movie depicting the life of a former Olympian and prisoner of war, who actually gave his life to Christ following World War II. Also, the shooting deaths of 2 New York City police officers has become a cause for concern as the national conversation on race relations continues.  Plus, the top story involves the celebration of the birth of Christ.

3 - Story of Louis Zamperini's life tops box office, Graham ministry tells rest of story

The story of former Olympian Louis Zamperini's survival at sea for over a month, followed by his imprisonment in a Japanese prison camp, was the top movie at the box office on Christmas Day, according to Box Office Mojo, which reported;
Unbroken took first place yesterday with an estimated $15.6 million, which ranks third all-time among Christmas Day debuts, behind Sherlock Holmes and Les Miserables. That's pretty remarkable considering the movie lacks any recognizable on-screen talent: credit this to the popularity of Laura Hillenbrand's book, curiosity about Jolie's directing, and the movie's inspirational true story (which appears to have some faith-friendly elements).
Louis Zamperini experienced a dramatic life change at a Billy Graham crusade in 1949.  After the war, he suffered from PTSD and abused alcohol.  After his conversion, he was able to forgive his captors.  CNN reported following his death in July of 2014:
He also forgave his wartime tormenters, some of them in person during a 1950 visit to a Tokyo prison where they were serving sentences for war crimes. He was willing to forgive the Bird, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, though Watanabe refused to meet with Zamperini when he had the chance, in 1998, when Zamperini returned to Japan to carry the torch at the Nagano Winter Games.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has put together a special film called, Louis Zamperini: Captured By Grace, which the Association says "tells the story of life after returning home a hero. Through the power of the Gospel—and his experience at the 1949 Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles—Zamperini overcame alcoholism, night terrors and a failing marriage to live a full and joyous Christ-centered life until his passing at age 97, inspiring millions along the way." Learn more at www.billygraham.org.

2 - Faith element comes to light after NYC police shootings


The national conversation on issues surrounding race and violence, in which Christian leaders have been actively engaged, acquired another flashpoint the weekend before Christmas when two New York City officers were slain in their patrol car.

The family of one of the officers, according to the U.K. Daily Mail, has forgiven his murderer, a relative revealed.

Rafael Ramos' cousin, Ronnie Gonzalez, insists their focus is on remembering the 40-year-old officer, father of two boys, rather than gunman Ismaaiyl Brinsley.

"[Brinsley] in the hands of God now," Gonzalez told Pix11. "We don't believe in vengeance, we just forgive."

He added that Ramos was due to graduate as a chaplain this weekend.

The Daily Mail story quotes Gonzalez as saying to the Wall Street Journal, "My cousin had a couple of priorities in his life..."  He added, "One was God, because he was a God-loving man..."

The STAND organization, headed by Bishop E.W. Jackson, has launched a "Pray for Our Police" campaign.   A press release on the Christian Newswire website quotes the prayer:
When the job is hard.
When the pressure is great.
When you wonder,
"Does anyone appreciate?"
Just know that for all the work you do,
Someone is praying and thinking of you.
For your duty and honor in difficult times,
God in heaven makes His face shine.
He looks upon you from above.
To inspire you with courage and love.
May He give you the strength
To make one more round.
At the end of your shift,
To go home safe and sound.
May you fight the good fight,
And live by His grace.
When your work here is done,
You'll see His loving face.
(Copyright 2014 Bishop E.W. Jackson)

Also, Christian Newswire has a press release stating that the family of Rafael Ramos was given a letter from the President of Faith Evangelical College and Seminary in Tacoma, WA, Dr. Michael Adams, during the first of two funerals held on December 26. Officer Ramos was working towards a BA in Religion as a distance student so he could qualify to be a police chaplain.

1 - Christmas commemorate birth of Christ, #ChristmasMeans campaign tops Twitter

This past Thursday, people around the world joined in the celebration of Christmas.  For those who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, Christmas can become an opportunity to worship God for sending His Son into the world to bring salvation for all of us.

Christmas becomes a relevant time for ministry, as churches and ministry organizations engage in sharing the compassion of Christ.  One example is found on The Christian Post website, which reports that:
More than 12,000 bags of cookies along with a note and voucher for free hot meals at a local eatery were given to residents and workers on Christmas Eve near the four locations of the New Jersey-based Liquid Church. The gift bags were distributed by more than 5,000 people who attended one of 12 services at the church in what was called a "spiritual flash mob."
Church pastor Tim Lucas is quoted as saying, "It's exciting to see the enthusiasm to go out and share God's love after each service." He added, "And we just heard from some police officers in Times Square sharing that they just received a bag from a Liquid Church family. It made their day to know that they matter, especially on a day like today. Now that's what we call putting our faith into action."

Those who attended Christmas Eve services at the church throughout the day were given the bags of cookies and vouchers with instructions from Lucas to "fan out" and show God's love after the services.

And, ChristianHeadlines.com reported that the hashtag #ChristmasMeans was prompting thousands of Christians to share the true meaning of Christmas -- Jesus Christ.

It stated that, "Many Christian leaders have joined the chorus, including Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Archbishop of York John Sentamu."

Welby tweeted, “#ChristmasMeans that in Jesus, God has given us the most precious gifts of all: forgiveness and hope.”

Sentamu wrote, "#ChristmasMeans God is at work amongst us. He is closer than you think. Praise Him!"

The piece said that "Christian Today reports that the hashtag began trending when the Church of England headquarters told its clergy to encourage church members to get out their smartphones and post the true meaning of Christmas."   A similar campaign under the hashtag #EasterMeans reached 29 million people last April. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The 3 - December 21, 2014

On this week's edition of The 3, my week-in-review feature, I highlight some news that has emerged from the nation of Iran, where 3 pastors had charges against them dropped recently.  Plus, there were several religious components surrounding the announcement this week of some changes in the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. Also, a significant discussion on race was conducted this week by a number of evangelical church leaders.

3 - Three Iranian Christians cleared of charges

There is a cause for celebration with the news spreading this week about charges being dropped against three Iranian church leaders.

In 2006, Iranian pastor Behnam Irani was initially detained while holding a Bible study and sentence to prison five years later for “action against the state,” according to a report on the ChristianNews.net website. In June of this year, he was interrogated on five occasions, and authorities then added 18 new charges against the 41-year-old pastor, including Mofsed fel-Arz or “spreading corruption on Earth,” which carries the death penalty. Another translation of the charge is “enemies of God on Earth.”

However, in October, the charges were reduced and Irani instead faced accusations of “action against national security” and “creating a network to overthrow the system.” Two other leaders with the Church of Iran, Abdolreza Ali-Haghnejad and Reza Rabbani, were charged as well. All three were declared guilty by Judge Asel Al-Hosseyn, and were sentenced to six years behind bars.

During an appeal hearing last month, Moshkani Farahani, an attorney for the pastors argued that the charges were baseless.  Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports that Farahani "...contended that people cannot be sentenced on political charges for simply belonging to a religious fellowship; in this case, a Christian community: ‘It is normal for members of minorities to be in touch with each other; Jews are in touch with others, Zoroastrians are in touch with each other. It is the same for Assyrians, Orthodoxes and Evangelicals. Such connections cannot be perceived as a penal crime."

During a follow-up hearing on Dec. 9, an appeals court overturned the convictions of all three men.   Haghnejad and Rabbani were released, but Irani still faces another two years behind bars from his previous five year sentence.

Meanwhile, American pastor Saeed Abedini continues to serve his prison sentence in Iran.  On its website, Mission Network News has a story about a letter that he has recently released.  It states:
American Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen imprisoned in Iran for his Christian faith, has written a heartbreaking letter from his prison cell.
He talks about both the difficulty of spending Christmas trapped in a cold dark prison cell and how his faith in Christ is carrying him through this difficult time.
The letter was released by the American Center for Law and Justice.  The pastor wrote:
Some of my fellow prisoners don’t like me because I am a convert and a pastor. They look at me with shame as someone who has betrayed his former religion. The guards can’t even stand the paper cross that I have made and hung next to me as a sign of my faith and in anticipation of celebrating my Savior’s birth. They have threatened me and forced me to remove it. This is the first Christmas that I am completely without my family; all of my family is presently outside of the country. These conditions have made this upcoming Christmas season very hard, cold, and shattering for me. It appears that I am alone with no one left beside me.
He also wrote about what Christmas means to him. Pastor Saeed said that, "Christmas means that God came so that He would enter your hearts today and transform your lives and to replace your pain with indescribable joy." He added, "The same way that the heat from the earth’s core melts the hard stones in itself and produces lava, the fiery love of God, Jesus Christ, through the virgin Mary’s womb came to earth on Christmas to melt the hard heart of sin and wickedness of the world and removes them from our life."

2 - Religious leaders respond to greater normalization of  US-Cuba relations

The announcement of steps toward greater normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba had religious components surrounding it, including the release of a prisoner apparently motivated by his Jewish faith and the involvement of the Pope. And, a leading Hispanic religious leader offered a strong response

On Wednesday, a Jewish international aid worker held for five years in Cuba on charges of spying was freed, according to ReligionNews.com, which, concerning the release of Alan Gross said, "some are calling a Hanukkah miracle on the first day of the holiday that celebrates religious freedom."

Gross has always claimed that he only went to Cuba to bring communications equipment to the small Jewish community left in Havana. However, the Castro government said he was part of a spy network attempting to set up a secret network for Cuban Jews. Gross was serving a 15-year sentence.

President Obama chose Wednesday’s release as a springboard to announce a massive historic “normalization” of U.S.-Cuba relations. Religion News reports that the President particularly credited the “moral example of Pope Francis,” who actively encouraged Gross’ release. Francis, who held private meetings at the Vatican to secure the deal, praised the move, sending “his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.”

Meanwhile, according to a report on the CharismaNews.com website, Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Leadership Council, the largest Hispanic Christian organization said that as a Christian, the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba prompts both concern and hopeful expectations for him.  He said that, "First, I am concerned that normalizing diplomatic ties without addressing the horrendous human rights record of the Castro regime serves as a defacto endorsement of one of the most oppressive regimes in recent history." He notes that as a result of Castro's totalitarian rule, millions live in poverty and thousands lie in prisons while others lost their lives. What's more, he continues, people live with their God given rights held hostage to governmental persecution.

Rodriguez concludes, "Nevertheless, if this controversial step results in the alleviation of hunger and opens the door for God-given freedoms to flourish, then I pray that this decision will serve as a prophetic step in unleashing the church of Jesus to be the church both inside and outside of the island nation addressing the spiritual and physical needs of the Cuban people."

Baptist Press featured a story on the viewpoints of some Southern Baptist leaders regarding this announcement.

1 - "A Time to Speak" online event brings together church leaders to address racial issues

"Where are the conservative evangelical voices?"  That was a question asked by Fellowship Memphis pastor Bryan Loritts in his opening remarks in an online event called, "A Time to Speak," held at the historic Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum. According to a report on the Baptist Press website, the discussion this past week was intended to focus on race relations, in light of the recent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, served as moderator. He began by presenting new research about Americans' views on race. He said that a survey of 1,000 Americans found many (75 percent) say the country has come a long way on race relations. But, more than 8 in 10 (81 percent) agree with the statement "We've got so far to go on racial relations."

Loritts said whites and African Americans remain largely disconnected in churches and society, so they can't hear one another's stories.

"At the end of the day, we don't know each other," Loritts said. "We don't know each other's story."

Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in Texas, said his views on race have changed because of his friendships with African American Christians, which have contributed to his concerns about racial injustice.  John Piper of Desiring God Ministries encouraged pastors of all ethnicities to "start from the Bible, end with the Bible" to confirm multiethnic relationships.

"The Gospel mandates reconciliation, in terms of when two people are brought to Jesus, they're brought to each other, period," Piper said. "That is the most important relationship on the planet ... more important than any of their blood relationships."

Other speakers included Voddie Baucham, Thabiti Anyabwile, and Trillia Newbell.  The Baptist Press report stated that, "Perhaps the most pointed moments of the discussion focused on systematic injustice, white privilege and the death of Michael Brown, stemming from a controversial piece Voddie Baucham, pastor of Grace Family Baptist Church in Spring, Texas, had written in late November saying Brown reaped what he had sown."  The article goes on to say that Anyabwile, an assistant pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, "acknowledged that many African Americans have overcome adversity. But he also said churches have to face the reality of systematic injustice."  This was a continuation of the sharing of opinions that had been posted online by the two gentlemen following the grand jury's announcement that it would not indict the Ferguson police officer involved in Michael Brown's death.

About the event and its significance, Loritts said, ""The world heard us speak."

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The 3 - December 14, 2014

In this edition of my week-in-review feature, The 3, a report has been released concerning abuse involving students at a notable Christian university.  Also, the state of Kentucky has reversed a multi-million dollar tax break afforded to a new Noah's Ark theme park under construction there.  And, a major newsmagazine has named its annual person of the year, acutally multiple persons, and there is a religious element to it.

3 - Report: Christian university responded poorly to abuse victims 

While sexual abuse on college campuses continues to be a significant topic, a famous Christian university has been taken to task for its response to students to claimed to suffer sexual abuse on campus or who found that their past experience with abuse was not handled properly by university staff.

Religion News Service reported this week on the release of a 300-page report conducted by the organization GRACE, which concluded that Bob Jones University, a conservative Christian school, responded poorly to many students who were victims of sexual assault or abuse.

Bob Jones commissioned GRACE, which stands for Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, in November 2012 to investigate claims about sexual assualt. During its two-year investigation, GRACE interviewed 50 individuals who self-identified as victims of sexual abuse.The executive director of GRACE, is Boz Tchividjian, who is a grandson of Billy Graham, who had parted ways with the leadership of BJU due to the university's fundamentalism.  The famed evangelist had attended BJU briefly.

The school still sees itself as fundamentalist, though it describes itself in its promotional materials more broadly as nondenominationally Christian.

The school decided in 2011 to hire GRACE to investigate claims of mishandling of sexual abuse after national media reports surfaced. Earlier this year, the school fired, and then rehired, GRACE to investigate allegations. A representative for the university said both parties agreed not to discuss concerns during that time.

According to Religion News Service, Bob Jones highlighted findings from the report:
  • BJU officials were not adequately prepared or trained to counsel victims appropriately.
  • Staff were seen by some victims as insensitive to their suffering.
  • Some victims reported that the school’s counseling was inadequate, insensitive and counterproductive.
  • Some felt staff tended to blame victims for the abuse or sexual assault.
  • Counseling sometimes overlapped with disciplinary actions.
  • Several victims reported that their abuse was not reported to legal authorities by campus counselors.
In a statement, university president Steve Pettit said, “On behalf of Bob Jones University, I would like to sincerely and humbly apologize to those who felt they did not receive from us genuine love, compassion, understanding, and support after suffering sexual abuse or assault..."

He added: “I promise the victims who felt we failed them that the GRACE report is an extremely high priority that has our immediate and full attention.”

In a statement, Tchividjian said, “Though much in this report will understandably cause readers to grieve, GRACE is encouraged by the willingness of Bob Jones University to take the unprecedented step to voluntarily request this independent investigation and to make these difficult findings public” He stated, "Such institutional transparency is too rare and will hopefully set a positive precedent for Christendom and the watching world.”

Pettit will appoint a committee to review the report findings and recommendations during the next 90 days. He said the school has taken steps to respond to sex abuse. Every faculty and staff must promptly notify law enforcement officials of child sexual abuse. School staff encourage adult victims of sexual assault to report their experience to the police.

2 - State of Kentucky reverses tax breaks for Noah's Ark theme park in KY

The theme park, which, according to its website, is centered around a full-scale replica of Noah's Ark, under construction by Answers in Genesis, has had approximately $18 million in tax incentives for the proposed park in Northern Kentucky retracted by a Kentucky state government official.  The Christian Post has a report.

The Post refers to a report by the The Courier-Journal saying that Answers in Genesis, headed by Ken Ham, is now considering a federal lawsuit challenging the decision.

Answers in Genesis had applied for and was granted preliminary approval to participate in a state tax-incentive program which would have allowed them to keep 25 percent of the sales tax collected at the theme park for 10 years, amounting to more than $18 million.

In a recent letter highlighted by the Journal, however, Kentucky's Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet said the Ark Encounter theme park had changed its hiring policy since it first filed for the incentives in 2010 and plans to discriminate in hiring based on religion.

It also noted that the theme park had shifted from being a tourist attraction to an extension of the Answers in Genesis ministry which teaches a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Tourism Secretary Bob Stewart noted that, in the letter, "State tourism tax incentives cannot be used to fund religious indoctrination or otherwise be used to advance religion...The use of state incentives in this way violates the separation of church and state provisions of the Constitution and is therefore impermissible."

The Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority had granted preliminary approval for the incentives in July and requested written assurances that there would be no discrimination based on religion. Since Stewart does not recommend the project for the incentives, however, it will not get final approval from the authority.

James Parsons, an attorney for Answers in Genesis, said he sent a letter to the cabinet on Monday noting that the state's demands on hiring policies are in violation of both state and federal law.

"If you insist on the newly imposed condition ... it will amount to unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination and my client will have no choice but to seek redress in federal court."

1 - Ebola fighters named TIME's "Person of the Year"

For their “tireless acts of courage and mercy,” TIME magazine has named the Ebola fighters as its 2014 person of the year.

ChristianityToday.com reports that a number of people, including medical professionals like Dr. Kent Brantly of Samaritan's Purse and Nancy Writebol of SIM, stepped up to manage the disease when federal governments and international health organizations were dragging their feet, fighting “a war that is waged with bleach and a prayer," according to TIME managing editor Nancy Gibbs in her explanation.

Brantly actually was pictured on one of the covers of the magazine released to coincide with the announcement.  At the Samaritan's Purse website, Dr. Brantly is quoted as saying, “From the community health care volunteers in Liberia, to the dedicated staff of organizations like Samaritan’s Purse and MSF, to the doctors and nurses at Emory University Hospital, Ebola Fighters are mostly anonymous heroes whose diverse faces are largely unknown even to their patients as they wage this war in head-to-toe protective gear...It is these nameless champions that TIME has recognized today.”

The website points out that to date there have been more than 17,000 Ebola cases in this outbreak, leading to more than 6,000 deaths.

“It’s not simply an historic event that we’re looking back on,” Dr. Brantly said in a phone interview on NBC’s Today show. “It’s still happening … they’re still in the trenches fighting that war.”

As the Christianity Today piece highlights, the story of Ebola fighters has a strong religion angle, which TIME makes “abundantly clear” in highlighting the role of Samaritan’s Purse and other missionary doctors and even the Bible, Get Religion columnist Bobby Ross Jr. noted approvingly.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The 3 - December 7, 2014

In this week's edition of The 3, my week-in-review feature, legislation protecting religious freedom has advanced in the state of Michigan.  In Florida, same-sex marriage licenses could be issued just after the first of the year, as the result of Federal court action this week.  And, from Minnesota, transgender athletes can participate on the team of their choice, as the result of a vote this week.

3 - Michigan House takes important step to protect religious freedom

The Michigan House of Representatives has approved a bill that is intended to protect the religious liberties of its citizens.  It's described in a report by ChristianNews.net as a state version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  It passed the chamber 59-50, and now moves to the Senate for consideration,  If passed there, it will be sent to the desk of Gov. Rick Snyder.

The bill is designed to mirror the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton.  It begins by saying, "The free exercise of religion is an inherent, fundamental, and unalienable right secured by Article 1 of the state Constitution of 1963 and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution."  It then uses federal legal standards to mandate that laws cannot be used to substantially burden the religious beliefs of inhabitants, unless the law serves a compelling government interest and is only uses the least restrictive means to further that specific interest.

The article on the ChristianNews.net website points out that the proposal also allows those who believe that a law violates their religious liberty to bring a legal challenge against it, such as did companies like Hobby Lobby.   House Speaker Jase Bolger declared on Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee: "I support individual liberty and I support religious freedom."  He went on to say, "I have been horrified as some have claimed that a person’s faith should only be practiced while hiding in their home or in their church."

Bolger has faced opposition from those who state that the bill promotes discrimination. Democratic members who spoke against the RFRA specifically cited their disagreement with allowing businesses to decline homosexuals should their request violate the conscience of the owner, or allowing pharmacies to refuse to dispense abortifacients due to their religious beliefs.

Bolger said that the bill is not new at all, since it is only modeled after federal law to also ensure protections on a state level.  He declared prior to the vote, "I am asking you today to give Michigan’s law abiding citizens the same protections as Michigan’s incarcerated felons have.” 

2 - Florida marriage amendment suffers setback

The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals panel in Atlanta announced Wednesday that a judicial stay in Florida’s federal same-sex marriage case will expire on January 5, 2015.  According to the Florida Family Policy Council, this overturns Florida’s marriage amendment likely ensuring that same-sex couples will be allowed to receive marriage licenses in the state the following day.

Florida Family Policy Council President John Stemberger issued a statement, which said, in part:

“The court today is wrong. The court was also wrong years ago in Dred Scott when it ruled that Blacks were not persons. The courts will never have the final word on an institution as fundamental to the human experience as marriage. You simply cannot build a civilization without natural marriage.

Today, we grieve. We grieve for the children who now have no chance of growing up with both a mom and a dad. We mourn the loss of a culture and its ethical foundation. We mourn for a culture that continues to turn its back on timeless principles."

According to CNN.com, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle had ruled Florida's marriage amendment defining marriage as one man and one woman unconstitutional back in August.  Hinkle said that the Florida amendment violated the "due process" and "equal protection" provisions in the U.S. Constitution.

Jacksonville.com reported that Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel called the decision to allow couples to marry while the appeal is ongoing a travesty. The decision, he said, shows the judges likely are leaning the wrong way.

He said, “There’s no question that the Supreme Court will likely get involved in these decisions now,” adding, “Florida voters have a right to affirm marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and there’s no constitutional rights to same-sex marriage. There are a lot of legitimate reasons why Florida’s affirmation of one man and one woman should be upheld."

1 - Minnesota school sports authority passes new policy allowing students to play on sports team of gender with which they say they identify

We have seen this trend ramp up regarding gender identity, where young people and others are being affirmed in identifying with the opposite gender than their biological one.  This has given rise to policies such as what a sports governing board in Minnesota has just voted to implement.

According to ChristianHeadlines.com, the new policy that will allow transgender high school students to play on the sports team of the sex in which they identify.

According to the policy, "When there is confirmation of a student's consistent and uniform gender-related identity…the student will be eligible to participate in MSHSL activities consistent with the student's gender identification for the balance of the student’s high school eligibility.”

The article says that the new set of rules has prompted concerns and criticism about safety and privacy from parents and officials.

State law already allows girls to play on boys’ teams, but some are concerned that larger biological males who identify as females could potentially harm smaller girls.

The ChristianHeadlines.com piece says that critics also have a problem with the part of the policy that says transgender students would share showers and hotel rooms with the sex in which they identify.

FoxNews.com reported that the vote was approved by the Minnesota State High School League and will go into effect beginning in the 2015-16 school year.   It reported that the league's media specialist tweeted out, "Minnesota will become the 33rd state to implement a policy for transgender high school athletes."

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The 3 - November 30, 2014

This week's edition of "The 3," my week-in-review feature, begins with the actions of a Christian legal advocacy organization that is taking a step to inform school districts regarding the rights of students to celebrate Christmas.  Also, in the aftermath of the grand jury decision regarding the fatal shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, churches in that area and Christian leaders nationwide are responding.  And, the top story: giving thanks - while that activity is something that Christians are called to participate in year-round, we can be especially challenged to express the love of Christ during this special time.

3 - Alliance Defending Freedom sends letters to school districts

As we enjoy the celebration of the Christmas season, we also recognize that the coming of this season tends to present some problems for school districts who will sometimes limit the right of free expression of the season by students.  This year, Christian legal advocacy organization Alliance Defending Freedom sent out a legal memo and myth and fact sheet Wednesday to more than 13,000 public school districts nationwide to explain the constitutionality of recognizing Christmas, participating in Christmas-related events, and allowing various forms of Christmas expression. The letter also offers free legal assistance to districts that need help.

In the memo, ADF explains that, "...school officials across our nation – whether intentionally or from being misinformed – have denied students and teachers their constitutional rights of religious speech and expression under the guise that the Constitution requires them to do so.”

ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot said, “No court has ever ruled that the Constitution requires school officials to censor Christmas carols, eliminate all references to Christmas, or silence those who celebrate Christmas...On the contrary, school officials tread on dangerous legal ground if they stifle the religious expression of students with regard to Christmas. As in previous years, we hope the materials we are providing to school districts will clear up the misinformation that has existed about this for far too long.”

Examples cited by ADF of incorrect responses by school districts include a South Carolina charter school that reportedly cancelled its participation in Samaritan Purse’s Operation Christmas Child after a humanist group threatened the school with legal action. School districts in Wisconsin and South Carolina that wrongly censored Christmas carols in school productions changed their positions in response to public outcry and letters from ADF explaining that the inclusion of religious carols is permissible.

2 - Churches respond to the Ferguson grand jury decision 

Across the country, strong response to the grand jury decision not to indict Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown stirred up emotions, which erupted in violence in Ferguson and protests across the nation.  And, not surprisingly, churches in the Ferguson area stood together to offer peace and relief.

According to an article on the WORLDMag.com website, Ferguson area churches were standing strong to respond.  For example, Pastor Rodrick Burton drove to New Northside Missionary Baptist Church to pick up the church van and a few cleaning supplies. He told his congregants it was time to help their neighbors: cleaning up businesses damaged by the riots and helping transport people who felt unsafe out of the area in the church van.

At South City Church, worship and outreach coordinator Michelle Higgins kept soup warm and the church doors open for anyone—including protesters, off-duty police, fearful community members—to find a space for prayer and rest. The church was stocked with medics, sleeping bags, hot dinner, and prayer services, but some just needed a moment to sit in silence as the jury’s decision “spoke deep, deep hurt to their souls,” Higgins said.  Other churches in the city similarly prepared for the aftermath of the grand jury decision by creating care centers.

Burton, who, like Higgins, is African-American, said that while he doesn’t know what compelled Wilson to shoot, “I do know that Christ is consistent in that we are supposed to pray for our enemy and we are suppose to forgive. The clergy don’t even dare bring that sentiment forward to the table, and when they do, it’s from a position that we are more righteous than them.”

In the discussions and meetings he’s participated in during the last 100 days, Burton said he saw pastors egging on the “idolatry of protest.”   He pointed out that this resulted in businesses being destroyed in Ferguson after the grand jury decision was announced.

Higgins believes the church has the responsibility to “model the unity to which we are all bound, always striving to be that family you wish everyone else would be, and that means worshiping and repenting together.”

And, while the Christians in the Ferguson community and the St. Louis area are attempting to spread the love of Christ in an explosive situation, a number of Christian leaders are speaking out on the grand jury decision and the aftermath of it.  I think that Christians can agree that this situation can provide teachable moments, opportunities for dialogue, and a heightened capacity for understanding.

1 - Thanksgiving brings a time for ministry

During the Thanksgiving season, we have the opportunity to not only spend time in fellowship with family and friends and take time to reflect on God's blessings, but also, as an act of worship to God, to reach out to others and spread the love of Christ.  This is definitely in action during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, as events across America were focused on helping those less fortunate.

According to the website of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, AGRM President John Ashmen is quoted as saying, “A greater number of people are discovering the deep satisfaction that comes through face-to-face encounters with invisible neighbors in need, and more so, the joy of giving to folks who will never be able to pay you back.” He points to an increase in volunteer involvement in rescue missions across the country, a trend that becomes evident during the holiday season—the busiest time of the year for feeding the hungry and homeless in America.  But, he also points out that help doesn’t always dry up after the holidays anymore.

Some of the events that the website highlighted this year:

Omaha, Nebraska: Open Door Mission was scheduled to engage 600 volunteer drivers to help deliver some 5,000 “Turkey ‘n’ Fixins” food boxes to at-risk families the Saturday morning before Thanksgiving.  Food box contents for this “Drumsticks on Wheels” event were funded through community donations from both businesses and individuals, featuring a shopping event to raise food box funds at a regional chain of grocery stores. 

Boise, Idaho: Rescue Mission Ministries was slated to serve more than 3,000 Thanksgiving meals to men, women and children at its annual Great Thanksgiving Banquet, held the day before Thanksgiving.  The mission also planned to distribute some 2,000 family food boxes for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Bridgeport, Connecticut:  Bridgeport Rescue Mission asked for volunteers to conduct drives to collect some 3,000 turkeys and 15,000 winter coats for Thanksgiving distribution. The Bridgeport Mission has also set a goal to deliver 4,000 holiday food boxes to area families in great need.

Columbus, Georgia: Valley Rescue Mission expected to serve up to 1,000 holiday meals “in-house,” and also plan to deliver holiday meals to shut-ins and the elderly in their community.

Also, one of the trends across America is the presence of a large Thanksgiving Day-related run.  For instance, in my hometown of Marietta, Georgia, the MUST Ministries Gobble Jog has grown to be the 7th largest Thanksgiving Day race in America.  In some instances, these types of events combine health and fitness with an outreach to the needy.

For a Christian, these types of events can serve as examples to challenge us to use Thanksgiving as an opportunity to extend our faith and express our thanks.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The 3 - November 23, 2014

In this week's edition of The 3, my week-in-review feature, there has been response among Christian leaders in response to the President's announced action on immigration this week, a continuation of faith-based groups and leaders speaking about the issue.  Also, thousands have been speaking out in support of a large family who are featured in a long-running reality show.  And, the top story:  a major gathering on the topic of marriage recently concluded at the Vatican, and evangelical Christian leaders were among the assortment of representatives from a variety of faith groups who attended and spoke.

3 - Christian leaders respond to President's executive action on immigration

As expected, this past week, President Obama announced that he would be taking executive action regarding immigration.  According to a report on the ChristianityToday.com website, the President said that:
1. "We’ll build on our progress at the border with additional resources for our law enforcement personnel so that they can stem the flow of illegal crossings, and speed the return of those who do cross over."
2. "I will make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy, as so many business leaders have proposed."
3. "We’ll take steps to deal responsibly with the millions of undocumented immigrants who already live in our country."
Of course, as the report points out, that third area, which could affect up to 5 million illegal immigrants in the nation, is continuing to prompt debate.

The President relied on a Biblical reference in his announcement.  He said, "Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger—we were strangers once, too...My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too."

Jenny Yang of World Relief is quoted as saying, "Congress should see the President’s actions as impetus to pass immigration reform that will supersede executive action as soon as possible..."

Samuel Rodriguez, President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said that the President's action was "not the preferable delivery mechanism," but described it as a "merciful action" because it "initiates a reconciliatory prescription necessary in addressing a defacto humanitarian crisis within our borders: millions of God's children created in his image living in the shadows."

Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention disagreed with the unilateral action and said, "My hope is that the Republicans in Congress will not allow the President's actions here as a pretext for keeping in the rut of the status quo." He is also quoted as saying, "More importantly, I pray that our churches will transcend all of this posing and maneuvering that we see in Washington. Whatever our agreements and disagreements on immigration policy, we as the Body of Christ are those who see every human life as reflecting the image of God.”

Noel Castellanos, CEO and President of the Christian Community Development Association, applauded the President for "making good on his promise to give relief."  He said that he has long "urg[ed] Congress to fix our broken immigration system based on the biblical principles of love for neighbor and human dignity."  He said that, "Now it is time for Congress to finish the job by passing comprehensive immigration reform."

The Washington Times featured a report with a number of Christian leaders, including Penny Nance, chief executive and president of Concerned Women for America, who said that their stance on immigration is that “we must secure our borders and enforce the law” — and “we do not believe the president has constitutional authority to give temporary amnesty without congressional approval.”

She added, “I think it’s important to note that the president and others have been using dog whistles to [call] evangelicals, by saying that undocumented workers must ‘get right with the law...It’s true and it’s clever, in that it appeals to our core belief in redemption and restoration.”

But the question is whose idea can make that happen, Ms. Nance said. “Eleven million people are God’s children and we must choose wisely and justly. But we must also be cognizant of national security and sovereignty.”

Among religious leaders, views on immigration reform are likely to not only continue, but harden, said Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a Christian think-tank and religious watchdog organization.

You can read more about the positions of Christian leaders on the issue, including a new LifeWay Research survey of pastors on it, by going to a recent edition of my other blog, The Front Room.

2 - Petition drive to remove Duggars' program countered 

LifeSiteNews.com reports that as of this past Saturday, after just two days, a petition in support of the Duggar family was poised to overtake a separate petition on Change.org attacking the family for their conservative beliefs.  The original petition drive was launched in September, and it was highlighted this week by several mainstream media outlets.   The original petition grew and was up to over 140,000 signatures by Saturday after it received that flurry of media coverage.

LifeSiteNews launched its counter-petition on Thursday, and over 2 days, it had risen to over 120,000 signatures.

The anti-Duggar petition criticizes Michelle Duggar, the mother of the large Christian family featured in TLC's "19 Kids and Counting," for opposing a "transgender" bill in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and demands that TLC yank the Duggars from the air.

Among high-profile Christians supporting the pro-Duggar petition are the Benham Brothers, whose proposed reality TV show on HGTV was cancelled after gay activists launched a campaign highlighting their traditional Christian views. They said that the effort to remove the Duggars waas part of "the same intolerant agenda that attacked our family." The brothers say that agenda "is now demonizing one of the most wholesome families in America...The Duggars have always been an example of Christian love for each other and society. It’s time for Americans to stand with them against this latest manifestation of anti-Christian bullying."

1 - Variety of church leaders, including evangelicals, address marriage at Vatican conference

This past week, 28 speakers from 14 religious traditions and 23 nations spoke at an ecumenical conference on marriage at the Vatican.  Included in the assortment of speakers were two evangelical leaders:  Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention and Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, which is a Southern Baptist congregation.
According to a story on the website, ChristianExaminer.com, Moore gave a message on the importance of marriage and emphasized the spiritual harm that comes from "jettisoning" the very relationship that represents Christ's relationship with His Church.  Warren offered a plan of action and charged the audience to "never give up!"
In opening the conference, Pope Francis is quoted as saying, "We now live in a culture of the temporary, in which more and more people are simply giving up on marriage as a public commitment...This revolution in manners and morals has often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings..."

In the closing address, Warren shared these comments, according to the Christian Examiner website:
"In Hebrews 13:4 we are given this clear command: Marriage is to be honored by everyone," Warren preached. "Sadly today, marriage is now dishonored by many."
"It is dismissed as an archaic, manmade tradition, discouraged as a career-limiting choice, denounced as an enemy of women, demeaned in movies and television and delayed out of fear that it will limit one's personal freedom," he said.
"Today marriage is ridiculed, resented, rejected, and even redefined."
"What are we to do about this?"
Saying there is too much at stake, he urged "The church cannot cower in silence!"
Using Mark 10:6-9, Warren presented five convictions he said "the Owner's Manual on Marriage" gives:  1) Gender is God's idea, 2) Marriage is God's idea, 3) Sex was created for marriage, 4) Marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and 5) Marriage is to be permanent.   He concluded by saying that they should "...never give up and never give in!"  He observed, "The church cannot be salt and light in a crumbling culture if it caves in to the sexual revolution and fails to provide a counter-culture witness."

The Examiner story reported that Moore spoke on Tuesday, saying people should defend one-man/one-woman marriage for the common good, but also for the sake of the Gospel.   It referred to a Baptist Press article quoting Moore as saying, "Marriage is a common grace, and we should speak...of why jettisoning normative marriage and family is harmful...Marriage 'is grounded in the natural order, bearing rights and responsibilities that were not crafted by an human state and cannot thus be redefined by any human state.'"

As the Christian Examiner pointed out, the conference was a year in the making, but coincidentally came just a month after a Vatican bishop's council stirred speculation about softening of official Catholic views on marriage, homosexuality and the family.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The 3 - November 16, 2014

In this week's edition of The 3, my week-in-review feature, I explore a halt to new regulations and a halt to new churches being registered in the African nation of Kenya.  Also, a Federal appeals court has upheld the housing allowance extended to clergy in the U.S. tax code.  And, Christians stood in prayer with persecuted believers in an annual observance recently.

3 - Kenya bans new churches

Church leaders in the nation of Kenya are crying foul in the face of proposed new regulations directed at churches in the wake of a scandal involving a minister who was allegedly selling miracles.

Standard Digital News reports that the Chairman of the Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, Bishop Mark Kariuki, and others alleged that the move by the Attorney General Githu Muigai to stop registration of new churches and his proposal to introduce regulations amounted to persecuting the church.

Kariuki addressed journalists ahead of a meeting with the Attorney General on Friday to discuss proposed regulations.  He is quoted as saying that, “We see this as persecution of the Church and we call on all Christians to support us and stand with us. When it comes to matters of faith, people are willing to die for the faith and we will stand firm with the church.”

Christianity Today, which had referenced a link to the Standard story, reported that the government response came after TV station KTN's Jicho Pevu and Inside Story broadcast a "Prayer Predators" exposé of preacher Victor Kanyari, whom the station claimed had been making money from his followers by asking them for advance payment for prayers and miracles.  Kanyari, who preaches at Salvation Healing Ministry, continued holding services but hired security to screen out visiting journalists, according to the Standard.

Kanyari admitted he coached members of his church to give false testimonies, but said many people had been “healed and blessed in many ways” by his ministry. He will be investigated for obtaining money by false pretenses, according to Kenya's director of public prosecutions.


The Standard reported that the AG has directed existing religious organizations to file details on their current status and financial returns with the Registrar of Societies. Details that organizations are required to provide would include: a copy of Kenya Revenue Authority’s personal identification number, full name of the organization, a registration number, date of registration, details of office bearers, copies of their identification cards and their passport size photographs.

During the press briefing, Kariuki reportedly argued that there is no need for the church to be punished for the sins of one person.

2 - Appeals court upholds clergy housing allowance

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued an important decision this week in a case involving the clergy housing allowance - it ruled that the federal tax code provision that treats church-provided housing allowances to ministers as income tax-free must stand, according to a report on the website of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, or the ECFA.  The allowance had been challenged by the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

The ECFA piece states:
In doing so, the appeals court overturned a previous decision by a lower district court in favor of the atheist group, Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The district court had found that the exclusion is an unconstitutional benefit in favor of religious groups...
The appeals court determined that the FFRF and its leaders were not proper parties to challenge the law in federal court because they had not suffered any concrete, personal injury—a critical element to establish standing.

The ruling stated, regarding the atheist organization's challenge, "This argument fails, however, for a simple reason: the plaintiffs were never denied the parsonage exemption because they never asked for it. Without a request, there can be no denial."

Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley is quoted as saying:
The government isn’t subsidizing something when its money is not even involved...The atheists who filed this suit may have an axe to grind against religion, but as the 7th Circuit found, that doesn’t give them sufficient standing to challenge a tax benefit for which it has never applied and that has been provided to pastors for decades. The allowance many churches provide to pastors is church money, not government money. It is constitutional and should continue to be respected and protected.
1 - Christians unite in prayer for persecuted church, release of Kenneth Bae celebrated

The first two Sundays of November are set apart to remember and pray for the persecuted church, through the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church (IDOP), according to its website.

It states that, "Today’s greatest untold story is that more than 100 million Christians worldwide face persecution for their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Daily Christians in countries such as Eritrea, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Sudan and Sri Lanka face imprisonment, violence and even death."

The IDOP is a designated time, this year set aside on either November 9th or even the 2nd, when Christians around the world who are suffering persecution are remembered in prayer.  The website, idop.org, featuring resources helpful in observing the day and in standing with the persecuted church, is a project of the Religious Liberty Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance.

This week, a piece ran on the Christian Today website reporting that Christian missionaries have vowed to continue their work in North Korea and China with more caution, despite the crackdown on Christianity in the region after the imprisonment of American missionary Kenneth Bae.

Bae was released recently from labor camp and returned to America after serving two years of his 15-year sentence for his Christian faith. North Korea and neighboring China have reportedly both increased their surveillance on Christian activities since his sentence.

"We are getting more nervous," Kim Seung-eun, a missionary from South Korea that often travels to North Korea, told Reuters. "We have to come up with a strategy to avoid another case like Kenneth Bae's."

Bae and another man held in North Korea, Matthew Todd Miller, were released from North Korea on Saturday, November 8 and arrived on U.S. soil later that day, according to NBC News.

Jeffrey Fowle is another Christian, who is from Ohio, who was detained for several months in North Korea. According to Christian Today, he was arrested after he had left a Bible in a public place, which he later explained in an interview that he planned to give to North Korea's underground church. Fowle told CBN that it was clearly against the nation's law but, as he said, "...being a Christian believer, I was trying to carry out the Great Commission of Jesus Christ, saying 'carry the Gospel to all corners of the Earth."