Monday, August 18, 2014

The 3 - August 17, 2014

In this week's edition of my week-in-review feature, "The 3," an attempt to overturn Houston's ordinance providing for special treatment for individuals based on sexual orientation and gender identity was turned back by city officials.  Also, in a suburb of St. Louis, churches are involved in trying to bring peace amidst conflict in the aftermath of a police shooting of an 18-year-old man. And, the top story, violence against Christians - as the purge of Christians continues in Iraq, more brutality has been reported in Nigeria, and a humanitarian crisis has ensued after a deadly attack last week.

3 - Attempt to overturn Houston ordinance affording special rights thwarted

One trend that is beginning to emerge regarding special rights for homosexuals and acceptance of same-sex marriage is the passage of municipal ordinances.  For example, cities such as Houston and San Antonio have already passed such policies and the city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana turned back such a law this past week.

According to a CitizenLink story, a Texas judge had temporarily halted an equal rights ordinance that would force Houston business owners to allow men to use the women’s restroom — and vice versa.  It was put on hold until this past Friday, pending a hearing on the matter. The ordinance would also force businesses to celebrate same-sex ceremonies.

City council members passed the ordinance in May.   Last month, a coalition, including pastors and other concerned citizens, submitted more than 50,000 petition signatures from Houstonians who want the ordinance to be repealed or placed on the ballot. Then, the mayor and the city attorney threw out more than 30,000 of those.

Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values Action, said people should get to vote. He is quoted as saying, "We will vigorously defend the right of Houstonians to take a timely vote on this dangerous ordinance...The oppressive actions of Mayor Parker and City Attorney David Feldman to throw out at least 30,000 petition signatures — and then delay and distract in court — only shows the desperate lengths they will go to prevent the people of Houston from having their say.”  Mayor Annise Parker is openly gay.

According to the NoUnequalRight.com campaign, which spearheaded the signature drive, the ordinance would place women and children in danger in business restrooms and community-pool changing rooms and locker rooms.

The Houston Chronicle reports that on Friday, opponents of the ordinance dropped their request for a temporary injunction that could have triggered a repeal referendum this November. Their lawsuit is scheduled to be heard January 19 of next year, a trial date that ordinance opponents called "expedited" and among the reasons they agreed to withdraw the request.

The injunction sought by the ordinance foes would have forced City Secretary Anna Russell to certify their petition and sent the issue to an emergency city council vote in order to get the repeal referendum on the November ballot. The group of conservative pastors and activists was also asking the city to suspend enforcement of the ordinance, though Mayor Annise Parker had already agreed to do so until a ruling is issued.

And, Houston's 14th Court of Appeals on Friday denied a separate request from opponents to force the city secretary to certify the signatures on their petition and trigger a referendum.

In Baton Rouge, a so-called equal rights ordinance failed by a vote of 8-4, according to a report on the NOLA.com website.

2 - Christians pray for peace in St. Louis suburb

The unrest in Ferguson, Missouri has been pronounced in the aftermath of the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown last week.  As WORLD reports, riots erupted throughout the week, after police shot and killed Michael Brown. Police reports claim Brown struggled with the officers, while two eyewitnesses have said that Brown had his hands in the air when he was shot multiple times. In the following days, rioters looted and burned stores, confronted police in the streets, and demanded the name of the officer responsible for Brown’s death.  Thursday, it was announced that the Missouri State Highway Patrol would oversee security in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. Gov. Jay Nixon announced the change in light of criticism that the St. Louis County Police Department has been overly confrontational with protesters.  After curfews were placed into effect for the weekend, another wave of protests and violence emerged, and as of Monday morning, the 18th, according to USA Today, Gov. Nixon had deployed National Guard troops to try to restore the peace.

As I wrote about in a recent post on my blog, The Front Room, in the middle of the turmoil, area churches have stepped forward to communicate an air of peace and service.  WORLD interviewed Michelle Higgins, Worship and Outreach Coordinator at South City Church in St. Louis, who said the atmosphere completely changes as day turns to night. Higgins said even though the police are patient and speak politely, “their appearance is so daunting that it creates a tension that does not have to be there.” The night also brings a different type of protester, including frustrated young people from all over the St. Louis area who often ignore community leaders’pleas to keep the protests peaceful.

Pastor Rodrick Burton, an African-American who leads the New Northside Missionary Baptist Church, located minutes from Ferguson, said it’s disheartening to see young people who are looking for instant results take matters into their own hands. He's also discouraged to see how people are injecting inaccurate information and their own narratives into an already tragic case. For one, he said, unlike the claims of many reports, the northern suburb of Ferguson, which is two-thirds black and one-third white, actually has “pretty good race relations,” and he worries how the riots will affect the existing relationships.

Baptist Press reports that Missouri Baptists in the area say the tragedy has opened doors for proclaiming a message of reconciliation in Christ. For instance, First Baptist Church in Ferguson opened its doors on Aug. 13 for a citywide prayer service.  First Baptist pastor Stoney Shaw said residents of Ferguson were joined by Missouri Baptists from nearby towns in praying for peace and unity. Among other churches involved in the service were The Gate Church of University City and The Passage Church of Florissant.  The pastor said the interracial prayer service exuded a spirit of reconciliation, with participants recognizing the need to love and understand one another.

The St. Louis Metro Baptist Association also organized an Aug. 13 prayer service hosted by Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in North St. Louis. In addition to praying for Brown's family and for peace in Ferguson, director of missions Jim Breeden said they prayed that God would empower local Christians to transform the greater St. Louis area with the Gospel message.

Some Missouri Baptists have already displayed this message by helping to clean Ferguson storefronts that were damaged by looters in the aftermath of Brown's shooting.  First Baptist of Ferguson issued a statement, which said, in part: "... we pledge to pray diligently for everyone involved...We ask that everyone join us in praying for peace and unity as we go through this difficult time together. And we stand ready to assist our community in any way possible to bring peace in the wake of this horrible tragedy."

1 - Radicals in Nigeria slaughter Christians

The purge of Christians in cities across Iraq and the entrapment of Yazidi people on a mountain in that nations have been sources of concern.  Meanwhile, another extremist Islamist organization, Boko Haram, continues its wave of violence in Nigeria.  And, reports have emerged that members of that organization ravaged the predominantly Christian town of Gwoza, Borno State last week, according to the Christian Today website.  Over 100 people were killed in the attack, and many citizens were forced to flee their homes and run into the hills to save their lives, according to a BosNewsLife report.

The Boko Haram members were wearing military uniforms and arrived on motorcycles, in trucks, and in up to 50 vans, and attacked the village with fuel-bombs and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).  The population of over 276,000 had their homes ransacked for food and other supplies before being burned. Some escaped civilians fled to Cameroon or nearby Adamawa State.

Boko Haram also targeted the predominantly Christian town of Limankara, Borno State, killing Church of Christ in Nations pastor Musa Gaiyo and three of his children.

Human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide condemned the bloodshed.  Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas, in a statement, said, "It is deplorable that the residents of Gwoza have been terrorised for so many months, and are now internally displaced, having lost their homes and livelihoods."

The Guardian Nigeria site quotes Senator Ali Ndume, who represents Borno South in Nigeria's National Assembly, who warned of a humanitarian emergency, who said, "Honestly, our people need help. The only people that are living in Gwoza are those that are either too old to walk or too young to flee..."They have no water to drink because the boreholes are no longer functioning. They also have no food to eat. There are over 50,000 people in Gwoza and more than 270,000 in the local government area but all of them are devastated."  He added, "Something urgent needs to be done."

Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) said 10,000 people had been displaced because of the attack and they were providing assistance to those who had escaped to Maiduguri or Madagali, in neighbouring Adamawa state.

Boko Haram became internationally known after kidnapping over 270 children from an all-girls school in Chibok, Nigeria on April 14. A second mass kidnapping occurred on May 4 in Warabe. Over 200 girls remain missing.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The 3 - August 10, 2014

This week here in my week-in-review feature, "The 3," news from a Federal courtroom in Montgomery, where a judge struck down legislation that would have required abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at local hospitals.   Also, a major church in the Northwest has continued to make headlines within the Christian community, and has been removed from membership in a church-planting organization that its pastor founded.  And, the top story involved the continued progression of the militant organization, ISIS, through Iraq, including the conquest of several Christian towns.

3 - Alabama abortion clinic bill struck down by Federal judge

A Federal judge has struck down a law, passed by the Alabama Legislature, that would have required abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.  It had been reported that, as the result of the bill's provision, three out of the five abortion clinics in the state would have had to close because they could not meet this minimum standard.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson issued his ruling on Monday in a 172-page decision, which said, in part, according to ChristianNews.net, “The resulting unavailability of abortion in these three cities would impose significant obstacles, burdens, and costs for women across Alabama...The evidence compellingly demonstrates that the requirement would have the striking result of closing three of Alabama’s five abortion clinics, clinics which perform only early abortions, long before viability.”

Governor Robert Bentley was quoted as saying, "...This law ensures that if a complication arises there is continuity of treatment between doctor and patient. This ruling significantly diminishes those important protections. I will always fight for the rights of the unborn, and support an appeal of today’s decision.”

The bill would be appealed to the 11th Circuit.   The 5th Circuit has already issued two decisions concerning similar bills.  A three-judge panel upheld a Texas law requiring that abortionists have admitting privileges, while another three-judge panel of the same circuit rejected a Mississippi requirement.

2 - Acts 29 church planting network removes church, pastor from membership

Acts 29 is a network of churches who are devoted to planting other churches.   Its website says that, "Over the last ten years Acts 29 has emerged from a small band of brothers to over 500 churches around the world. We want to allow a unifying, uncommon movement of God to happen through Acts 29. Centered on the Gospel, we desire to advance the mission of Jesus through obediently planting church-planting churches. It is our hope to see this leading to millions of lives changed by the power of the Spirit for the glory of God."

The network was founded and led for most of those ten years by an unconventional pastor from Seattle by the name of Mark Driscoll - he is the pastor of Mars Hill Church.  It was announced this week that Pastor Driscoll and Mars Hill Church have been removed from membership in the network.  The website says that:
...Mark and the Elders of Mars Hill have been informed of the decision, along with the reasons for removal. It is our conviction that the nature of the accusations against Mark, most of which have been confirmed by him, make it untenable and unhelpful to keep Mark and Mars Hill in our network. In taking this action, our prayer is that it will encourage the leadership of Mars Hill to respond in a distinctive and godly manner so that the name of Christ will not continue to be dishonored.
On the WORLD News Group website, Warren Cole Smith reports that a letter was sent to Driscoll by the Board of Directors, which includes Matt Chandler, who became Board Chair after Driscoll stepped down several years ago. Other board members include: Darrin Patrick, Steve Timmis, Eric Mason, John Bryson, Bruce Wesley, and Leonce Crump.  WORLD reports that the board said it wrote the letter “in sadness and hope” and only after waiting to see what Driscoll and the Mars Hill Board of Advisors and Accountability (BOAA) would do to resolve what the letter called “countless shots and dozens of fires directly linked to you.”

But the Acts 29 board’s letter added, “We no longer believe the BOAA is able to execute the plan of reconciliation originally laid out. Ample time has been given for repentance, change, and restitution, with none forthcoming. We now have to take another course of action.”

Just 2 weeks ago, Warren reported in a piece on the WORLD website that:
Last year, a plagiarism controversy forced Driscoll and his publisher Tyndale House to issue a joint statement admitting “mistakes were made.” This year, WORLD reported Mars Hill Church spent a quarter-million dollars in church funds to put his book Real Marriage on The New York Times bestseller list. Former staff members have increasingly taken to the internet to voice their grievances with what some have called Driscoll’s overbearing management style.
He went on to write that:
These controversies came to a head in March, when Driscoll made a remarkable public apology. In a letter to his congregation that received national coverage, he said his “angry-young-prophet days are over” and he would take steps to become “a helpful, Bible-teaching spiritual father.” Among the steps Driscoll planned to take included refraining from posting on social media until “at least the end of the year” and to doing few, if any, media interviews.
Apparently, this public apology was not enough, and more information about Driscoll and his activities has continued to come to light.

On his website, Warren Throckmorton, who has been a vocal critic of Driscoll, quoted one of the Mars Hill ex-pastors who has been initiating mediation with the church, Kyle Firstenberg, who had this reaction to Acts 29′s announcement.
I have been greatly discouraged with the response from the BOAA in the charges that both I and others have brought. Years have gone by with what appears as only damage control and not any clear act of love for Mark in holding him accountable as brothers in the faith should.
This action from Matt Chandler and the other members of the board of A29 is one of the most loving acts I have seen in leadership in the Church world in recent years.
Throckmorton does point out that the BOAA did respond to the letter announcing that Mars Hill was being removed.  It was signed by Chairman Michael Van Skaik and Board Member Larry Osborne, saying that, "...I told the lead pastors at the recent annual retreat that we are making real progress in addressing the serious reconciliation and unhealthy culture issues that have been a part of Mars Hill Church for way too long. And we are. I also told them that more opposition would undoubtedly be coming, and it has. Friendly fire always hurts the most."   Van Skaik took the A29 leadership to task for not speaking directly to the Board or Mark Driscoll prior to the announcement.

According to Throckmorton, a group of over 75 members and ex-members have chosen to delay the filing of 53 new charges against the pastor and his Executive Elders.  Apparently, you have had a number of people in the Mars Hill culture who have been involved in the process of confrontation, with the hope of restoration.   Perhaps this A29 action can be a catalyst for healing within a church body that has had and continues to have a real opportunity to impact the world.

1 - ISIS continues conquests, takes over large Christian town

This week, the world's attention has been refocused on the upheaval in the nation of Iraq, where the ISIS army (also known as the Islamic State) continues to make inroads.   This week, American airstrikes against ISIS militants were carried out, and relief supplies were dropped to those fleeing the onslaught.

Religious cleansing and genocide have become the mode of operation for ISIS.  Reports of the brutal treatment of Christians in Mosul have been widely circulated, and this week, the Christian Today website
said that militants pushed back Kurdish troops and then moved in overnight to take over four Christian-majority towns, including Qaraqosh which is home to Iraq's largest Christian community.

The story quotes Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah, Joseph Thomas, who confirmed to AFP, "I now know that the towns of Qaraqosh, Tal Kayf, Bartella and Karamlesh have been emptied of their original population and are now under the control of the militants. He said, "It's a catastrophe, a tragic situation. We call on the UN Security Council to immediately intervene," and noted, "Tens of thousands of terrified people are being displaced as we speak, it cannot be described."

Qaraqosh and the surrounding towns are said to have contained at least a quarter of Iraq's historic Christian population before the insurgents moved in.

In 2003, there were around 1.5 million Christians living in Iraq. There are now thought to be less than 200,000.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

The 3 - August 3, 2014

This week here in "The 3," my week-in-review feature, I highlight a court decision on the pro-life law in Mississippi that would have closed the state's only abortion clinic because it could not obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital.  Also, a physician working with a Christian relief organization, who contracted the deadly Ebola virus while treating those suffering with it in Liberia, has reached the U.S., and a hygienist also working on the mission field will be heading to America soon.  And, the top story:  President Obama has appointed a new religious freedom ambassador and the State Department has released its annual report on religious freedom around the world.

3 - Appeals court strikes down Mississippi pro-life law

Mississippi's only abortion clinic will continue to operate, based on a 3-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the state's abortion law requiring those doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital placed an undue burden on women.

According to LifeNews.com, the appellate court upheld a lower court injunction suspending the law, though it narrowed the scope of the stay to apply only to the parties in the case — namely the lone Mississippi abortion facility, Jackson Women's Health Organization.   That facility could not obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital and would have been forced to close out of noncompliance with the law.

The appeals court said the fact that women would have to travel out of state for an abortion was an "undue burden," so the law can’t stand.

Writing for the majority, Judge E. Grady Jolly stated: “Mississippi may not shift its obligation to respect the established constitutional rights of its citizens to another state. Such a proposal would not only place an undue burden on the exercise of the constitutional right, but would also disregard a state’s obligation under the principle of federalism—applicable to all fifty states—to accept the burden of the non-delegable duty of protecting the established federal constitutional rights of its own citizens.”

The three-member panel that heard arguments had indicated that closing Mississippi’s last abortion clinic might be difficult due to concerns that crossing state lines for abortions might create a different set of legal issues.

Paul Eldridge Barnes, who argued for the State of Mississippi, noted that already thousands of Mississippi women cross state lines every year for abortions in neighboring states.

In fact, last April, a different three-member panel of the Fifth Circuit found that a nearly similar provision in Texas’ HB2 abortion law created no “undue burden” on women seeking abortion and allowed the state to enforce it. That has resulted in the closure of numerous Texas abortion clinics.

2 - 2 missions workers contract and fight deadly Ebola virus

Over the weekend, a plane carrying Dr. Kent Brantly, a physician working with international Christian relief organization Samaritan's Purse, landed outside of Atlanta.   Dr. Brantly had contracted the deadly Ebola virus while working with patients in the African nation of Liberia.  According to the Samaritan's Purse website, after landing in the U.S., he was then transported to Emory University Hospital.   Emory has an isolation unit set up in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to treat patients who are exposed to certain serious infectious diseases.  He had been working with the Samaritan's Purse medical team responding to the Ebola crisis in Liberia.

American Nancy Writebol, a hygienist working with the missions organization SIM, who also contracted Ebola in Liberia, is expected to arrive in Atlanta within the next few days.

Samaritan's Purse President Franklin Graham is quoted as saying, “We thank God that they are alive and now have access to the best care in the world...We are extremely thankful for the help we have received from the State Department, the CDC, the National Institute of Health, WHO and, of course, Emory Hospital.”

This past week, Samaritan’s Purse was currently working to evacuate all but the most essential personnel to their home countries. Samaritan’s Purse is taking precautions that exceed the standards recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

According to Graham, “An experimental serum arrived in the country, but there was only enough for one person. Dr. Brantly asked that it be given to Nancy Writebol...However, Dr. Brantly received a unit of blood from a 14-year-old boy who had survived Ebola because of Dr. Brantly’s care. The young boy and his family wanted to be able to help the doctor that saved his life.”

1 - State Department issues new religious freedom report, new ambassador appointed

There were some developments concerning U.S. government efforts to address religious freedom issues this week.  Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by the new nominee for the post of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Rabbi David Saperstein, announced the release of the State Department's annual report on religious freedom.  There are now 9 "Countries of Particular Concern" with regard to the area of religious freedom. Turkmenistan has been added to the State Department’s list of worst religious freedom offenders, according to a report on the Religion News Service website.

The State Department’s “Countries of Particular Concern” list had remained static since 2006, when eight countries — Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan — were designated as CPCs.

Justifying the addition of Turkmenistan, Kerry cited reports of people detained, beaten and tortured for their beliefs, prohibited from wearing religious attire and fined for distributing religious materials.

Kerry called the report “a clear-eyed objective look at the state of religious freedom around the world,” adding “it does directly shine a light in a way that makes some countries – even some of our friends – uncomfortable.” He called for the CPC designations to be grounded in real action that can help change reality on the ground.

The report says, "In 2013, the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory...In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs. … Communities are disappearing from their traditional and historic homes and dispersing across the geographic map. In conflict zones, in particular, this mass displacement has become a pernicious norm.”

In a report on the Saperstein nomination, Religion News Service reported that:
The choice of Saperstein will appeal to many who advocate for religious freedom for his staunch work in the area, and for his lifelong commitment to social justice. 
RNS points out:
...his generally liberal views may concern some from the more conservative side of the political spectrum. Though he helped pass RFRA, the law considered by the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case decided last month, Saperstein decried the court’s decision, arguing that the justices had overstepped when they ruled that the craft store chain could cite religious objections in not providing contraception coverage in its insurance plan.
Concerning Saperstein, Baptist Press relates that, "He has advocated positions opposite those of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and other pro-life and religious liberty organizations."  It reports that Saperstein backs abortion rights and that, "He stood at Obama's side as the president signed an executive order July 21 to extend workplace protections among federal contractors to homosexual, bisexual and transgender status."

In a statement, ERLC President Russell D. Moore said, "While we strongly disagree with Rabbi Saperstein on many issues regarding domestic policy such as the recent Hobby Lobby ruling and issues related to the sanctity of unborn life, we are hoping that he will articulate a robust view of religious freedom around the world as he answers these questions in his Senate confirmation hearings."

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The 3 - July 27, 2014

This week on my week-in-review feature, "The 3," news emerging that a government agency may be checking on churches, looking for violations on regulations governing political speech and activity.  Also, the President issued an executive order that could limit free expression of religion by employees, forcing those who do business with the Federal government to accept homosexuals in the workplace.  The top story is a cause for celebration: the exit of Meriam Ibrahim from Sudan after being released from prison on charges of apostasy (wouldn't recant Christian faith) and adultery (married a Christian man).

3 - Internal Revenue Service reportedly tells atheist group it will investigate churches

The Alliance Defending Freedom discovered this week that the Internal Revenue Service had apparently reached an agreement with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, where the IRS pledged to the atheist group that it would begin to investigate churches and pastors, exercising what they regard as their free speech rights to endorse candidates and relate other political content.

For years now, ADF has been involved in trying to go to court to overturn the Johnson Amendment, which it views as unconstitutional because of its regulation of sermons, which are protected by the First Amendment.On its website, the Alliance Defending Freedom states that the Johnson Amendment authorizes the IRS to regulate sermons and requires churches to give up their constitutionally protected freedom of speech in order to retain their tax-exempt status. To that end, for a number of years, ADF has been encouraging pastors to participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, on which they would preach politically-oriented sermons which could violate the Amendment.

This week, ADF asked the IRS to release all documents related to its recent decision to settle the lawsuit with FFRF, which claimed the IRS has adopted new protocols and procedures for the investigation of churches. The atheist organization had accused the agency of failing to investigate churches the way the atheist group would like, according to ADF.

Christiana Holcomb, ADF Litigation Counsel, stated, “Secrecy breeds mistrust, and the IRS should know this in light of its recent scandals involving the investigation of conservative groups...We are asking the IRS to disclose the new protocols and procedures it apparently adopted for determining whether to investigate churches. What it intends to do to churches must be brought into the light of day.”

The Alliance states that currently, the IRS claims it is temporarily withholding investigations of all tax-exempt entities because of congressional scrutiny of its recent scandals, but no one knows when it will decide to restart investigations based on any new or modified rules that it develops.

This year's Pulpit Freedom Sunday is October 5, 2014.

2 - President issues order saying Federal contractors cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity

On Monday, President Obama issued an Executive Order requiring that Federal contractors, companies and organizations that do business with the Federal government, grant, as a piece on the Family Research Council website puts it, "special treatment to the politically-charged categories of 'sexual orientation' and 'gender identity' in the workplace."  This was an apparent attempt to partially institute the provisions of the so-called Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which has failed to pass Congress year after year. This year, the Senate passed a version of ENDA that included a religious exemption.  A number of religious leaders had asked the President to include a religious exemption in his order, but that request was rejected.

Peter Sprigg, Family Research Council's Senior Fellow for Policy Studies, issued a statement, which said, in part:
"President Obama has ordered employers to put aside their principles, and practices in the name of political correctness. This level of coercion is nothing less than viewpoint blackmail that bullies into silence every contractor and subcontractor who has moral objections to homosexual behavior. This order gives activists a license to challenge their employers and, expose those employers to threats of costly legal proceedings and the potential of jeopardizing future contracts."
He went on to say that:
"Religious faith is not simply a matter of intellectual affirmation but of active practice. A religious organization which is denied the power to require its employees to conduct their lives in a way consistent with the teachings of their faith is an organization which is being denied the right to exercise its religion, period. People with deeply held convictions regarding the morality of certain types of sexual behavior should not be bound by the dictates of President Obama's agenda."
Tony Perkins, President of FRC, in his daily Washington Update, said that, "The President is placing at risk not only faith-driven employers but religious groups such as relief organizations which sometimes put government dollars to work in uniquely effective ways."  He went on to point out that the American people are not overwhelmingly convinced that this type of policy is the right way to go.  Perkins cited that "a Huffington Post poll that finds only 50% of Americans support an ENDA-type law, which gives preference to homosexuals and transgenders in the workplace."

Sarah Torre, Policy Analyst in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation, provided some analysis on this Order by the President in a recent interview on Faith Radio for The Meeting House.  You can listen to or download the audio here.

Ryan Anderson, William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society for the Heritage Foundation, highlighted on the Heritage website 4 reasons why the Order was problematic. In summary, those are: 1) The order undermines our nation’s commitment to reasonable pluralism and reasonable diversity, as it disregards the consciences and liberties of people of goodwill who happen not to share the government’s opinions about issues of sexuality, 2) its conscientious judgments about behavior as if they were insidious acts of discrimination akin to racism or sexism, 3) it does not contain a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (BFOQ) exemption, allowing employers to make employment decisions so long as those decisions are honestly related to job qualifications, and 4) it is unnecessary, because voluntary market forces are already eliminating true discrimination.  Anderson also highlights that a bill has been introduced into both houses of Congress that will protect religious liberty and the rights of conscience.

1 - Meriam Ibrahim, Sudanese woman once under a death sentence, who would not renounce her Christian faith, leaves Sudan

This week, the diplomatic process ramped up and Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese woman who faced the death sentence for apostasy and would not recant her Christian faith, was permitted to leave the country.  She had been released from prison several weeks ago, but was rearrested at the airport due to a passport issue.  The family had travelled to the U.S. Embassy in Sudan, and the last word prior to this week was that they were in an unidentified safe place.

This past Wednesday, according to a story on the WORLD News Group website, Sudanese authorities gave Meriam her passport and she was told she could leave.   Shortly afterward, Lapo Pistelli, Italy's deputy minister for foreign affairs, arrived in Sudan to accompany her to Italy.  Earlier, the U.S. House of Representatives had held a hearing on Meriam's plight.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is quoted as saying, “This is a day of celebration.” He welcomed the family at the airport in Rome on Thursday. On Thursday morning, the family met with Pope Francis at his residence at the Vatican.

WORLD had also spoken with an American pastor, Bill Devlin, who had traveled to Sudan last week to urge Sudanese officials to release the mother and her family.  He also met with Ibrahim, her husband, and their two children in a conference room at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum, where the family had lived since Ibrahim was re-arrested at the airport in June. In a phone interview on Wednesday (before news of her release broke), Devlin said the family was eager to leave Sudan but seemed healthy and in good spirits.  He also said a pediatrician had advised Ibrahim’s infant daughter appeared healthy, although the baby would need further tests to assess her health.  After her release from prison, Ibrahim said she feared the baby might be disabled due to the circumstances of her birth.

What's next for the family?  The WORLD piece speculates that they may soon travel to the United States. Ibrahim’s husband, Daniel Wani, is an American citizen and a long-time resident of Manchester, NH.

Earlier in July, after Ibrahim's re-arrest at the airport, I spoke with Jamie Dean, News Editor of WORLD Magazine - here is a link to that conversation.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The 3 - July 20, 2014

This week in my week-in-review feature, "The 3," a Christian college in Massachusetts has encountered some retaliation because of its president's stand on Biblical principles.  Also, a brazen attempt to take legislative action against the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision occurred in the U.S. Senate this week. And, there was more court action regarding state marriage amendments this week.

3 - Christian college faces ramifications for upholding Biblical standards

A Christian college is under fire because its President signed a letter requesting a religious exemption from a proposed new policy to be implemented by President Obama that would prohibit "discrimination" on the basis of sexual orientation.   ChristianNews.net reports that Kimberley Driscoll, mayor of Salem, MA, recently sent a letter to Michael Lindsay, the president of Gordon College, advising that the school could no longer manage the Old Town Hall because it opposes sexual activities between those of the same gender.

She stated that her main concern was over the college’s behavioral standards policy, which prohibits staff and students from engaging in homosexual behavior. The policy also forbids fornication, drunkenness, profanity, blasphemy, lying and other behaviors that are inconsistent with Biblical principles.

She said that Gordon College’s policies “fly in the face” of Salem’s non-discrimination law, which bars the city from working with entities that “discriminate” against others.

She told reporters recently that she made the decision to cancel the contract, which was to have expired later this year, when she discovered that Lindsay was among those who signed that letter to Mr. Obama.
In an online message to Gordon College students and staff, Lindsay explained that, “My sole intention in signing this letter was to affirm the College’s support of the underlying issue of religious liberty, including the right of faith-based institutions to set and adhere to standards which derive from our shared framework of faith, and which we all have chosen to embrace as members of the Gordon community...”

According to CitizenLink, without an exemption, Gordon College — and other Christian colleges — could lose federal funding, student financial aid and accreditation. CitizenLink has initiated a petition drive in order that people can show support for President Lindsey and the Biblical principles which the college is attempting to uphold.

2 - Bill to reverse Hobby Lobby decision fails to advance in Senate

This past week, the U.S. Senate, moving with uncharacteristic swiftness, voted on a bill that, if it had passed there and been approved by the House, which would have been highly unlikely, would have essentially overruled the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), according to a report on the WORLD News Group website.  RFRA is the law the Supreme Court cited when it ruled the federal government cannot force a family-owned business to provide contraceptive coverage that goes against its religious beliefs.   The bill also would have required employers to cover all forms of contraception and other healthcare mandated in the Affordable Care Act, regardless of conscience objections.

The Senate on Wednesday afternoon fell short of the 60 votes needed to move forward with the Protect Women’s Health From Corporate Interference Act, in a 56-43 vote on bringing the measure to the floor. Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who voted against moving the measure forward, said, “The federal government doesn’t have the right to force Americans to violate their faith...The bill put forward by Senate Democrats is nothing more than a political charade, designed to falsely suggest to the American people that employers can deny their employees access to birth control.”  3 Republicans joined 51 Democrats and 2 Independents in voting for the bill.

WORLD reports that Republicans have introduced legislation that would “clarify” the high court’s decision, noting it didn’t prevent anyone from accessing any kind of birth control, including abortifacient drugs.

As the WORLD article states, House Republicans have excoriated Senate Democrats for not moving faster to take up legislation, but in this case, the Senate showed it is capable of moving at remarkable speed. After the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties on June 30, Senators Patty Murray or Washington and Mark Udall of Colorado unveiled their legislative response on July 9. Only one week, later the Senate voted on cloture, or ending debate.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, is quoted as saying that lawmakers have much more pressing issues they should be focused on: “The world is falling apart, along with the U.S. economy, and yet Senate Democratic leaders think the future of the free world hinges on employers being forced—under the threat of crippling fines—to provide drugs that have the potential to kill an unborn child.”

1 - Court action on marriage amendments continues

More action was taken this week by courts on state amendments defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.   The Alliance Defending Freedom reported that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit issued a 2-1 decision Friday in Bishop v. Smith to strike down Oklahoma’s voter-approved constitutional amendment that affirmed marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

ADF Senior Counsel Byron Babione is quoted as saying, "“Every child deserves a mom and a dad, and the people of Oklahoma confirmed that at the ballot box when they approved a constitutional amendment that affirmed marriage as a man-woman union. In his dissent, Judge Kelly correctly noted that ‘any change in the definition of marriage rightly belongs to the people of Oklahoma, not a federal court.’" He goes on to say that, "Ultimately, the question whether the people are free to affirm marriage as a man-woman union will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. If the high court remains consistent with what it held in its Windsor decision, the states will ultimately be free to preserve man-woman marriage should they choose to do so.”

As I reported last week, a state court judge in Colorado made the brash move of ruling that state's marriage amendment unconstitutional.   This week, a county judge in Florida did the same.  The Florida Family Policy Council reports that Monroe Circuit Court Judge Luis Garcia ruled that Florida's marriage amendment was unconstitutional.  Furthermore, he did not stay his action pending appeal.   Same-sex couples who wish could be granted marriage licenses as soon as this Tuesday, July 22nd.

Council President John Stemberger is quoted as saying,
Today’s ruling by Judge Garcia, in the Florida Keys, is a stunning act of legal arrogance and raw judicial activism. With one stoke of a pen, a mere trial judge has attempted to overthrow an act of direct democracy by five million Floridians who defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Judge Garcia has ignored the constitution, ignored the will of the people, and has asserted his own personal views over the rule of law. This ruling is precisely what voters were trying to prevent when they overwhelmingly defined marriage in the Florida Constitution in 2008 by a 62% vote. Judge Garcia’s reliance on the Windsor decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 is wrong sided and completely misplaced. Windsor was a state’s rights decision and affirmed that each state has the right to define marriage. Instead of relying on the constitution, Garcia joined the judicial stampede of other lower federal judges who have tried to override marriage laws based on no precedent other than their own political agendas.
So, from the Federal appeals level to the local level, judges are assuming this posture.   As Babione pointed out, the Windsor decision left questions of marriage legality to the states.   So, it would seem that the will of the majority, as expressed in the passage of these amendments, would be upheld.   It will be interesting to see when and if one or more of these cases will reach the high court, which passed on its opportunity to provide clarity by not issuing a definitive ruling in the Proposition 8 case out of California.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The 3 - July 13, 2014

This week, in my week-in-review feature, "The 3," more news on the same-sex marriage front, as rulings were issued in court cases involving people who issue same-sex marriage licenses.  Also, faith leaders have protested the President's reported plan to issue an executive order prohibiting Federal contractors from "discrimination" based on sexual orientation.  And, the crisis involving thousands of children on the border continues to build, and apparently the help of faith groups and individuals has been rejected, so far.

3 - Judges make decisions regarding clerks issuing same-sex marriage licenses

Another week, another judge stepping in to rule a marriage amendment unconstitutional...this time, it's for Colorado.  This time, according to a report on the CitizenLink website, it was a county judge in that state, Adams County Judge C. Scott Crabtree, who made that determination, putting the ruling on hold pending an appeal to avoid “instability and uncertainty.”

The following day, a judge ruled that a county clerk in Boulder could continue to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. CitizenLink reported that Boulder County Clerk Hillary Hall took it upon herself to begin issuing licenses to same-sex couples on June 25, the same day a federal appeals court struck down Utah’s constitutional marriage amendment. Colorado Attorney General John Suthers filed a motion last week seeking to stop Hall from issuing the licenses.  In his ruling, Boulder District Judge Andrew Hartman said Hall must keep a record of the licenses.  He also said she must let couples know that the validity of the licenses depends upon higher court rulings.  Also, reportedly Colorado county clerks in Denver and Pueblo announced that they will also begin issuing licenses to same-sex couples.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers said Hartman’s order claims that even if the licenses are invalid, the “state suffers no irreparable harm from their issuance.” Suthers also issued a statement underscoring the need for rulings — on both of these cases — from the state Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, a Pennsylvania county clerk had appealed a Federal District judge's ruling overturning that state's law defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, according to another CitizenLink story. Theresa Santai-Gaffney, Schuylkill County clerk, had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and halt same-sex marriage in the state while a court case moves forward.  That appeal was turned back by the high court.

2 - Faith leaders challenge "non-discrimination" policy 

President Obama has proposed an executive order that would ban so-called "discrimination" based on sexual orientation for contractors with the Federal government. A debate has moved forward among faith leaders about whether or not the order should contain a religious exemption.  This order would essentially be a mini-version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prevent sexual orientation from being a factor in employment practices.  Charisma News provides a timeline.

On June 25, more than 150 mostly evangelical leaders signed a letter urging Obama to "protect the rights of faith-based organizations that simply desire to utilize staffing practices consistent with their deep religious convictions." They suggested specific language that was similar to the Senate version of ENDA.   That request followed an earlier letter from 90 organizations asking the Obama administration to end the Bush-era policy of permitting federally funded religious groups to hire and fire based on a person's faith.   A copy of the June 25 letter can be found at the International Religious Freedom Alliance website.  The letter includes signatories Franklin Graham, President and CEO of Samaritan's Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association; Stanley Carlson-Thies, President of the IRFA; Leith Anderson, President of the National Association of Evangelicals; Samuel Rodriguez, President of the National Christian Hispanic Leadership Conference; and Dan Busby, President of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

Also, Charisma News reported on a July 1 letter that was sent to the President, signed by three former advisory council members and his former chief liaison to evangelicals, asking the President to include an exemption for religious groups. They wrote, "A religious exemption would simply maintain that religious organizations will not be automatically disqualified or disadvantaged in obtaining contracts because of their religious beliefs." Among those signing that letter were Florida megachurch pastor Joel Hunter; the Rev. Larry Snyder, CEO of Catholic Charities USA; and the Rev. Noel Castellanos, CEO of the Christian Community Development Association; as well as former evangelical liaison Michael Wear

And, just this week, more than 100 religious leaders, including four former members of the President's Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, signed on to a letter saying there should be no religious exception.  They wrote, "An exception would set a terrible precedent by denying true equality for LGBT people, while simultaneously opening a Pandora's Box inviting other forms of discrimination." Signatories to that letter included more liberal theologians, such as, Harry Knox, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice; Fred Davie, executive vice president of Union Theological Seminary; Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and Metropolitan Community Churches Moderator Nancy Wilson.

More ENDA news now from this week: The effort is facing a major setback after a coalition of gay rights groups and civil liberties groups pulled their support because of an exemption for religious groups, according to ChristianHeadlines.com.

The American Civil Liberties Union and four gay rights groups said they can no longer support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case over contraception coverage, which allowed some businesses to claim a religious exemption in following federal law.  Laura Murphy, the director of the ACLU's Washington legislative bureau is quoted as saying that, “Federal legislation to protect LGBT people from workplace discrimination is way beyond overdue, but Congress has no place giving religiously affiliated employers a license to discriminate against LGBT workers...We can no longer support a bill that treats LGBT discrimination as different and somehow more legitimate than other forms of discrimination.”

1 - Christians attempt to intervene in immigration crisis


Certainly, the buildup at the border of children seeking refuge in America is developing into a political and a humanitarian crisis, and there are indications that people of faith are being prevented from being involved.

That's the report of Todd Starnes of Fox News, who states that:
Pastors and churches have been banned from helping the thousands of illegal immigrant children housed in border detention facilities run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, clergy in Texas and Arizona tell me.
Starnes quotes Kyle Coffin, a Tucson, Arizona pastor, who said, “Border Patrol told us pastors and churches are not allowed to visit...It’s pretty heartbreaking that they don’t let anybody in there -- even credentialed pastors.”

A public affairs officer for the Border Patrol confirmed that ministers and church groups have been banned from the Nogales Placement Center.

Starnes reported that people of faith in San Antonio had a similar experience. One professional counselor at a camp run by BCFS, an organization previously known as Baptist Child and Family Services, said there were no clergy at all.

Apparently, a question was raised to President Obama in a meeting in Dallas this week. ChristianHeadlines.com reported that Chris Liebrum of the Baptist General Convention and Arne Nelson of Catholic Charities asked the President if the ban on Christians volunteering at overwhelmed detention camps would be lifted. Christian groups bringing toys, blankets and food to the gates of the camps were reportedly turned away.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The 3 - July 6, 2014

In this week's edition of "The 3," my week-in-review feature, there is news of more violence directed at Christians in the country of Nigeria.  Also, marriage amendments are continuing to be challenged - a judge ruled against Kentucky's amendment, and Florida's amendment was in court this week.  And, the top story is from the nation's highest court - relief for family-owned businesses who do not wish to provide, in their health care plans, forms of birth control that they find objectionable due to religious convictions.

3 - More violence against Christians in Nigeria

Militants are continuing their attacks against Christians in Nigeria, and on their day of worship, members of four churches were victims of violence.  According to Christian Today, gunmen fired at worshippers gathered in Kwada village just 6 miles from Chibok in Borno state on Sunday, where more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped and taken hostage on April 14.

The militants then set fire to the buildings, which included the Protestant Church of Christ in Nigeria and the Pentecostal Deeper Life Bible Church, before heading to nearby Kautikari village where they continued their rampage; shooting local civilians and setting fire to their homes. More than 30 people reportedly lost their lives.

President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in Muslim-majority Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states in May 2013 and has authorized an increased military presence in an attempt to combat extremism.  However, Boko Haram – whose name translates as 'Western education is forbidden' – continues to wreak devastation across northern Nigeria. Members are thought to be responsible for at least 2,000 deaths so far this year alone.

More violence took place on Tuesday.  The website, ChristianHeadlines.com, reports that a car bomb explosion in Maiduguri exploded, causing dozens of deaths, according to witnesses.  Boko Haram is being blamed for that act of violence, as well as a series of previous bombings in the region.

The bombing took place just hours after it was announced that Nigerian authorities arrested a "key figure" in relation to the abduction of the over 200 schoolgirls on April 14, according to a ChristianToday.com report.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reports that the military arrested a businessman named Babuji Ya'ari - known to be a Boko Haram ringleader - along with two female operatives who work for the extremist group.

In addition to leading a violent Boko Haram cell, Ya'ari is said to have "participated actively" in the abductions of April 14 that resulted in global outrage and an international campaign to bring the girls to safety. 219 of the young women, mostly aged between 16 and 18, however, are still missing - sparking fears that they have been sold into slavery.

2 -  Federal judge strikes down Kentucky marriage amendment, Florida amendment in court

Earlier this year, a Federal district judge ruled that Kentucky must recognize so-called same-sex marriages performed in other states.  This past week, that same judge, U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn II, an appointee of George W. Bush, ruled against Kentucky’s constitutional amendment that sought to protect marriage as being between one man and one woman and banned so-called marriage between members of the same-sex, according to a report on the ChristianNews.net website.

In his decision, Heyburn took a shot at those who hold to the historical and biblical belief that marriage comes from and is defined by God and those who voted for the amendment, expressing that such beliefs do not rise above the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Heyburn declared, “In America, even sincere and long-held religious beliefs do not trump the constitutional rights of those who happen to have been out-voted."

Heyburn also criticized Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) for arguing that the ban preserves the state’s birth rate, and therefore contributes to the economic stability of Kentucky.

Heyburn has stayed his ruling pending an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

Meanwhile, in Florida, a judge in Miami this week began to hear arguments on a challenge to that state's marriage amendment.  According to the website Local10.com, a lawsuit challenging the ban was filed by six same-sex couples from South Florida in January.   The suit reportedly contends that the amendment is discriminatory and violates guarantees of equal protection.

Attorney General Pam Bondi's office is contending that one judge should not overturn the 2008 amendment. Attorneys for her office also argue the U.S. Supreme Court has left marriage definitions to the states.

1 - U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties in challenge to contraception mandate

The greatly anticipated ruling in the combined challenge to the government mandate that employers provide contraception, including abortion-inducing drugs, in their health care plans was handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.   Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialities, two family-owned businesses, had challenged the mandate, and their cases were combined before the high court.

The ChristianHeadlines.com website had an assortment of reactions from Christian leaders.  Here are a few:

Becket Fund for Religious Liberty attorney Lori Windham, who represented Hobby Lobby in the suit, is quoted as saying that Americans “don’t give up their rights to religious freedom just because they open a family-run business. This is a landmark decision for religious freedom.”

Barbara Green, co-owner of Hobby Lobby, along with husband Steve Green, said, “Our family is overjoyed by the Supreme Court’s decision…The Court’s decision is a victory, not just for our family business, but for all who seek to live out their faith. We are grateful to God and to those who have supported us on this difficult journey.”

Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention quoted scripture as he commented on the case writing, “‘Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a coverup for evil, but living as servants of God.’ (1 Peter 2:16). Let’s fight for religious freedom, for everybody. And let’s preach the gospel with power. We must be about both: persuasive proclamation and the guarding of the freedom to disagree with us. That’s what Jesus taught us. So let’s hold onto freedom and let’s pray, for liberty and Jesus for all.”

Dr. George Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God said, “The court should be commended for recognizing that individuals do not surrender their religious freedom rights when they incorporate as a closely held, for profit business. A family-owned business...has religious freedom rights because members of the family do.”

Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, in expressing thankfulness for the ruling, is quoted as saying, “The unfair HHS mandate gave family businesses two non-choices: either violate your deeply held moral beliefs and comply by paying for drugs and services to which you object, or pay crippling fines of up to $100 per day, per employee, for non-compliance. This mandate threatened the jobs, livelihood and healthcare of millions of Americans and forced those who stood up for their conscience, like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, to either comply or be punished.”

Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum said, “The Supreme Court’s ruling on Obamacare’s contraception mandate is a tremendous victory for our freedom of conscience. I’m proud of the Green and Hahn families for holding true to their core convictions and standing up to Obamacare’s intrusive contraception and abortion coverage mandate. The Hobby Lobby and the Conestoga Wood Specialties businesses were built on people living out the American dream, and their owners should not have to check their religious beliefs at the door.”

National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference President Dr. Samuel Rodriguez offered this word of caution in commending the decision, "For people of faith, this decision requires both celebration and a renewed commitment to vigilance, as today’s complacency is tomorrow’s captivity.”
Also, the Becket Fund reported that Wheaton College received last minute relief from the Supreme Court this week, protecting the College’s right to carry out its religious mission free from crippling IRS fines.

The Court’s order states that Wheaton “need not use the form prescribed by the Government” under the HHS Mandate, and it prohibits the government “from enforcing against [Wheaton] the challenged provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and related regulations pending final disposition of appellate review.” The order gives Wheaton the same relief that the Supreme Court gave to the Little Sisters of the Poor in January and came just days after Hobby Lobby and Eternal Word Television Network won similar victories at the Supreme Court and Eleventh Circuit, respectively.

The Becket Fund reports that there have been a total of 49 for-profit lawsuits filed against the contraception mandate.  Of the 41 cases with rulings touching on the merits of the cases, the scorecard is 40-6.  There have been 51 non-profit lawsuits filed, and the scorecard is 30 injunctions granted and only 3 denied.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The 3 - June 29, 2014

In this week's edition of "The 3," my week-in-review feature, I include a brief report on an event that I, along with over three thousand other people, attended in Atlanta.  Also, another ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court went in favor of pro-lifers and free speech.  And, the top story involves a Sudanese woman who refused to recant her Christian faith and who was released, detained, and re-released this week.

3 - Thousands converge on downtown Atlanta for Christian Retail Show

The annual event sponsored by CBA: The Association for Christian Retail (formerly known as the Christian Booksellers Association), the International Christian Retail Show, drew thousands to the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta this week.  The annual gathering brings together publishers, authors, filmmakers, retailers, and others who are involved in marketing a variety of Christian products.

According to a report on the Christian Retailing website, the industry is seeing significant cultural shifts in consumer shopping habits and fluctuations in church attendance, especially among millennials, ages 18 to 33. Reaching that critical group was a focus of this year’s show for Christian retailers and ministry leaders.

The initial reports are that attendance was roughly the same as last year, when ICRS was held in St. Louis. Christian Retailing reported that attendance numbered slightly higher than last year, while buyers rose by 2.4%. The Publishers Weekly site headline said that attendance was flat - at just over 3,700, slightly under last year in St. Louis.  That report said that the CBA cited a 2% increase in professional attendance, from 1,485 in 2013 to 1,520 in 2014.   Both reports indicated that after next year's Orlando gathering, there may be some changes in the presentation of the show.

This was my fourth consecutive year attending ICRS, and the second time I have attended the show in Atlanta.   After two years in which attendance was approaching 5,000 people (Atlanta, then Orlando), according to Christian Retailing, attendance dropped sharply last year.

Curtis Riskey, CBA President, visited with me near the beginning of the show, and discussed some of the challenges in Christian retailing, as well as opportunities to be involved in community activities.  CBA modeled that this year by hosting the Change a Life Festival to benefit a local Christian ministry.  You can access my conversation with Curtis here.

I benefited again from having the Faith Radio/Meeting House broadcast center near the exhibit hall entrance, and I was able to interview close to 3 dozen people - authors, filmmakers, and others who are communicating gospel truth.  You can check out conversations from the show by visiting the Meeting House download center at MeetingHouseOnline.info.

2 - U.S. Supreme Court issues second pro-life, free speech decision in as many weeks

Coming on the heels of a decision in favor of a national pro-life organization whose free speech rights were affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the high court issued another ruling in favor of pro-life free speech this week.  In a unanimous ruling this week, the justices struck down a Massachusetts law that limited pro-lifers from talking to people entering abortion facilities.

CitizenLink has this report.

The law was signed in 2007, requiring a 35-foot “buffer zone” around abortion sellers. Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed suit a year later on behalf of a group of pro-lifers. The group, many of whom are grandparents, reportedly wanted to simply provide information on abortion alternatives, and offer support to those who want it.

Attorney Mark Rienzi is quoted as saying, “Americans have the freedom to talk to whomever they please on public sidewalks...The Supreme Court has affirmed a critical freedom that has been an essential part of American life since the nation’s founding.”

ADF petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case after a federal appeals court upheld a lower court’s ruling in favor of the law.

In the ruling, the court underscored pro-lifers’ constitutional rights to share their ideas in public:
It is no accident that public streets and sidewalks have developed as venues for the exchange of ideas. Even today, they remain one of the few places where a speaker can be confident that he is not simply preaching to the choir…. In light of the First Amendment’s purpose “to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail…,” this aspect of traditional public fora is a virtue, not a vice.

1 - Sudanese Christian woman now reportedly free and safe

As of Friday morning, Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman who was sentenced to death on charges of apostasy and punishment on charges of adultery because she married a Christian man, was reportedly in the safety of the U.S. Embassy in Sudan.   The WORLD website reported that after Meriam had been released from prison earlier this week, she, her husband, and children were re-arrested at the airport on suspicion of forging travel documents.  After being released, the family fled to the embassy for protection. U.S. officials told the Associated Press they were working to get the family out of the country. Ibrahim’s husband, Daniel Wani, is a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Meanwhile, it was reported that Ibrahim's family members, who had filed the complaint against her in the first place, had threatened to carry out the death sentence that had been removed by the court earlier in the week. Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported Ibrahim's lawyers had also received death threats and extremist groups attempted to pressure the court to carry out her sentence.

As WORLD points out, Ibrahim was freed from prison on Monday and had been sentenced to die for refusing to recant her Christian faith.  After an international outcry, a judge commuted her sentence.  Her lawyer, Eman Abdul-Rahim, said the family was trying to get on a plane bound for the United States when they were detained at the international airport in Khartoum.  Daniel Wani, Ibrahim’s husband, is a naturalized U.S. citizen. Her release apparently came after U.S. Representatives Chris Smith, Frank Wolk, Mark Meadows, and Joe Pitts met with Maowia Khalid, the Sudanese ambassador to the United States.  
Smith called Ibrahim’s release a “huge first step,” but said he would reserve the right to convene a hearing until Ibrahim and her family are “on a plane and heading to the United States.”

Smith, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, had scheduled a hearing on Ibrahim’s case for Tuesday, but he agreed to postpone the proceeding based on assurances he received at that meeting.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The 3 - June 22, 2014

In this week's edition of "The 3," my week-in-review feature, I bring to you some news from a Presbyterian denomination's annual meeting, where same-sex marriage was affirmed.  Also, thousands gathered in the nation's capital to voice their support for traditional marriage.  And, a unanimous decision from the U.S. Supreme Court went in favor of a pro-life group.

3 - Presbyterian Church USA votes to allow gay marriage

In its General Assembly in Detroit this past Thursday, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to recognize same-sex marriage.  According to the WORLD website, delegates voted 371-238 to allow ministers to perform same-sex marriages wherever legal, and 429-175 to amend the definition of marriage in its constitution. The PCUSA is the nation's largest Presbyterian denomination, with some 1.8 million members.

The order to pastors was made effective when the assembly adjourned, while the constitutional changes require approval from a majority of 172 regional presbyteries, which will vote on the change over the next year. The amendment says marriage can be the union of “two people,” not just “a man and a woman.” 

As WORLD reported, Thursday’s vote wasn’t surprising.  Since a 2011 vote to ordain pastors in open homosexual relationships, 428 of the mainline denomination’s more than 10,000 churches left for other, more conservative Presbyterian denominations or dissolved.  With the potential for further backlash, PCUSA officials issued a letter to pastors telling them to remember that God is in control and “to take seriously our charge to bestow … grace and love on one another.”

The Presbyterian Lay Committee, a conservative group within the PCUSA, denounced Thursday’s vote as “an abomination,” calling for a financial boycott of any PCUSA arm that fails to denounce the assembly’s actions. The committee stated that the assembly “committed an express repudiation of the Bible.”  It said that, “God will not be mocked and those who substitute their own felt desires for God’s unchangeable Truth will not be found guiltless before a holy God.”  The committee contended that Scripture was missing throughout the process. The marriage amendment, for example, doesn’t mention the marriage-gospel metaphor in Ephesians 5. Rather, the denomination affirmed that the “sacrificial love that unites the couple sustains them as faithful and responsible members of the church and the wider community.”

In other news from the General Assembly, on Thursday, 78 percent of the PCUSA General Assembly rejected a resolution condemning the killing of babies born alive during abortions.  The resolution was initiated by the South Alabama presbytery and called for inclusion of pro-life Presbyterians and an investigation into doctrinal and financial support of abortion.  Dissenters cited pro-abortion stances, while others noted past affirmation of viable babies and reservations in commenting on criminal cases.

2 - Marriage march affirms support for traditional marriage

On the same day as the vote on same-sex marriage at the PCUSA meeting - this past Thursday - the National Organization for Marriage, which has been a key force in attempting to uphold the traditional definition of marriage across America, sponsored its second March for Marriage in Washington, D.C., which featured a rally near the Capitol building, followed by a march to the U.S. Supreme Court building.

Brian Brown, President of NOM, wrote in a blog post:
Did you see yesterday's March for Marriage? What a day it was!
Several thousand Americans — people from across the spectrum of America — Men and Women, African Americans and Latinos, Orthodox Jews, Evangelicals and Catholics, young and old — stood together in defense of marriage between one man and one woman.
There were people from all over the country, and we even got congratulations from the states of Texas and Indiana as they watched the rally online. Texas Values president Jonathan Saenz wrote, "Marriage is a Texas value, and we stand in unison with the thousands in D.C. today standing for marriage between one man and one woman."
Besides those gathered at the Capitol for the exciting rally, there were thousands more who tuned in to watch the live stream from their own hometowns, making this a truly national event.
Christopher Plante, Regional Coordinator for NOM, gave a preview on the Tuesday edition of The Meeting House radio program, and a brief recap on Thursday.

Speakers included former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, New York State Senator Rev. Ruben Diaz, and Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone.

The Washington Times featured a special section on its website devoted to coverage of the March.  In a report on the March for Marriage, it quoted one of the speakers, Gov. Huckabee, who told the Times and TellDC that without the traditional understanding of marriage, the foundation of American freedoms and government will begin to crumble.

He is quoted as saying, “It’s not just conservatives, there was a time at one point in America where liberals and conservatives both agreed that marriage was foundational to the structure to the stability and to the longevity of society, Some of us just haven’t given up on that notion that families still matter and that a family is the most foundational form of any government."

1 - Supreme Court gives green light to pro-life organization in free speech case

A national pro-life advocacy organization received a positive, unanimous ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court this week and is continuing its challenge to a "false statements" law in the state of Ohio.

Here's the backstory, reported by CitizenLink.com:

In the 2010 election, the Susan B. Anthony list had planned to put up billboards highlighting Rep. Steve Driehaus’ record on life issues. Driehaus, a Democrat, claimed to be pro-life, but had voted for Obamacare, which allows taxpayer funding of abortion. When Driehaus found out about the billboards, he filed a complaint with the Ohio Election Commission, which decided in favor of the Congressman, who was defeated in his re-election bid.

SBA List filed suit in federal court challenging the Ohio “false statement” law, which puts election officials in charge of what is “true” in campaign ads and what is “false.”

Two federal lower courts ruled that SBA List’s free speech had not been silenced. The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court, where, this past week, the justices unanimously ruled that the pro-life group had “standing” to challenge the law on First Amendment grounds.

SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser is quoted as saying, “Our goal from the beginning has been to educate Ohio voters about the multiple abortion-funding provisions in Obamacare and expose those elected officials who voted for it...Everything we have argued is true and the reality of abortion-funding in Obamacare will continue to be an issue in the midterm elections and future election cycles.”

This week, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision, the SBA List is seeking for the law to be placed on hold as the legal process moves forward. Dannenfelser said, "SBA List must be permitted to continue educating voters...both in Ohio as well as in other battleground states.”

To hear Kim Trobee of CitizenLink's discussion of this case, click here.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The 3 - June 15, 2014

It's time for another edition of my week-in-review feature, "The 3," featuring 3 stories of relevance to the Christian community.   One of the stories that attracted my attention from this past week involves 2 managers at an Air Force base who are facing termination because of their support for a "Duck Dynasty" star.   Also, religious freedom issues were topics of a hearing before a Congressional subcommittee this past week in Washington.  And, the top story - the nation's largest Protestant denomination held its annual meeting this week in Baltimore.

3 - Religious freedom in the workplace: employees at Air Force base under scrutiny for showing support for "Duck Dynasty" star

One of the areas that I have been tracking fairly regularly deals with how people of faith are being restricted in their religious expression.   And, there have been numerous issues of concern in the U.S. military.   A recent incident was reported in a piece this week by Todd Starnes of Fox News on the Charisma News website, and it took place at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle.

You have 2 senior management officials who put decals on their personal trucks supporting "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson. Now a union representing Federal employees is demanding that they be fired.

Alan Cooper, the executive vice president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, said one of the officials also displayed the "I Support Phil" decals in his office last month and offered them to subordinates.  An employee was reportedly offended by this, and Starnes quotes Cooper as saying, "We took offense...These two particular individuals have a great amount of influence over individuals who may be gay, who may be African-American – and we have a concern they should not be in a position to exert that influence when it comes to promotions."   Cooper went on to disparage Phil Robertson of "Duck Dynasty" and said that the decal could constitute a civil rights violation.

Starnes spoke with one of the individuals being targeted by the government union, who said, "My intent was not to offend anybody...My intent was to support the show and to show support for his Christian values." He said that he was especially upset after union workers took photographs of his truck and his license plate and emailed the images to other union members. That email was reportedly sent to hundreds and hundreds of personnel.

He said, "I see the email that went out accusing me and my boss of being racist...That couldn't be farther from the truth," adding, "I'm pro-family,...I'm pro-life. I don't have a problem with anybody who doesn't agree with me."

The Air Force is apparently standing behind the two officials who are standing with Phil. The director of public affairs for the base, Andy Bourland, stated: "Brigadier General Dave Harris is not taking any action against the individual as the display of such a bumper sticker is considered legally protected speech under the First Amendment."  Bourland said they looked into the incident involving the decals in the worker's office. They also decided not to take action in that incident.

2 - Religious freedom hearing takes place before U.S. House subcommittee

The issue of religious freedom was taken up on Capitol Hill this week.  During each session of Congress, the House Subcommittee on the Judiciary holds a hearing on religious freedom.  In this hearing, according to a report on the CitizenLink website, several Christian legal experts expressed their concerns on what is perceived as a rise in challenges to religious liberty by the current Administration. Testimony centered on topics such as religious freedom on campus, same-sex marriage and the judiciary.

Greg Baylor, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said that the government has taken “extreme positions designed to dramatically decrease religious freedom...In order to protect our first liberty — religious freedom — Congress should consider taking steps within its power to curtail these harmful activities.”

Mat Staver, CEO of Liberty Counsel, said, “Judges have been tripping over one another to ignore the rule of law and the will of the people to invalidate the institution of marriage and silence any opposition to their ideology...The destruction of the institution of marriage is not only harmful to society at large, but it has resulted in unprecedented intrusion into the religious freedoms of individuals and businesses that have been attacked for operating their business according to the dictates of their conscience.”

Kim Colby, an attorney with the Christian Legal Society, testified about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Passed in 1993, the act was intended to ensure a “level playing field for Americans of all faiths.” Instead, RFRA has become a target for activists, especially when it comes to the HHS mandate in Obamacare. She pointed out that RFRA and the First Amendment, "require that the government respect religious liberty by restoring a definition of ‘religious employer’ that protects all entities with sincerely held religious convictions from providing, or otherwise enabling, the objectionable coverage." She added, “At the end of the day, this case is not about whether contraceptives will be readily available — access to contraceptives is plentiful and inexpensive — but whether America will remain a pluralistic society that sustains a robust religious liberty for Americans of all faiths.”

1 - Southern Baptists gather in Baltimore, elect new president, pass resolutions

The Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting at the Baltimore Convention Center this week, and just shy of 5300 representatives, or "messengers," gathered to elect a new President, hear from their outgoing leader, conduct business and speak with a united voice on certain issues of the day through resolutions.

Baptist Press offered a summary of the proceedings.

Ronnie Floyd, pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas, was elected President of the Convention on the first ballot with 51.62 percent of the vote. Maryland pastor Dennis Manpoong Kim was second with 40.70 percent of the vote. His predecessor, Fred Luter, shared a sermon based on Psalm 80:18-19, the passage for this year's "Restoration and Revival through Prayer" theme. He said Southern Baptists must repent of their failure to share the Gospel with lost men and women.

The convention adopted nine resolutions on topics ranging from transgender identity to payday lending, church revitalization, global hunger relief, the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and casinos and lotteries.

The resolution on transgender identity affirmed "God's good design that gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one's self-perception." The resolution invited transgender persons "to trust in Christ and to experience renewal in the Gospel" and opposed all efforts to "validate transgender identity as morally praiseworthy."

According to ReligionNews.com, the resolution concerning gambling affirmed the messengers' opposition to government sponsorship of casinos and lotteries and asked Americans of all religious and political convictions to join in a call to end the practice, which they say has amounted to “corrupt deals” and “broken dreams.”

Regarding the Civil Rights Act, messengers marked the 50th anniversary of enactment of the Act and said that they, “lament and repudiate this nation’s long history of racial segregation as well as the complicity of Southern Baptists who resisted or opposed the dismantling of the evil of racial hierarchy in our churches or society.”

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission presented awards: The Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, received the John Leland Religious Liberty Award for their refusal to abide by the federal government's abortion/contraception mandate. Pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American pastor who is being held in prison in Iran, received the Richard Land Award for Distinguished Service for "faithfully serving the Lord Jesus Christ ... despite the risk involved."

According to SBCAnnualMeeting.net, the Convention will be held in Columbus, Ohio next year and St. Louis in 2016.   And, in 5 years, in 2019, The Alabama Baptist reports that the Convention will be in Birmingham.