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.

Monday, June 09, 2014

The 3 - June 8, 2014

In this week's edition of "The 3," my week-in-review feature, I take a look at a shooting at a Christian college campus in Seattle and an act of bravery that helped to thwart the gunman's acts.  Also, almost 2 dozen campuses in Virginia now have a new free speech policy.  And, the top story involves another wave of violent attacks being perpetrated in Nigeria, attributed to the same group that kidnapped almost 300 young girls recently and continues to hold them.

3 - Shooter opens fire at Seattle Christian college, subdued by other students

A lone gunman walked into Otto Miller Hall on the campus of Seattle Pacific University, a Christian college, last Thursday and began shooting, an incident which resulted in 1 death and 3 injuries. ChristianityToday.com reported that Seattle police arrested a 26-year-old man as a suspect in the shooting, someone with no known connections to SPU and who was not a student at the school. He was armed with a shotgun and a knife, police said.

Police say that the suspect was subdued by a student, who was acting as a building monitor. That student is now widely identified as Jon Meis.  It was reported that he pepper-sprayed the gunman, then he tackled him to the ground.  Police told reporters that after the student building monitor subdued the shooter, other students jumped on top of them and helped to keep the shooter to the ground.

University President Dan Martin was quoted by CT as saying that, "We're a community that relies on Jesus Christ for strength and we'll need that at this time...My message is one of hope—in our Lord Savior Jesus Christ who can get us through this." Assistant police chief Paul McDonagh is quoted as saying, "I want to remind everyone here that the actions of the subject here do not define SPU or the city of Seattle...The actions of the students and staff, that's what defines Seattle Pacific University. This is not about an evil act but about the people that actually lived through his scenario and assisted each other when things were pretty tragic."

2 - VA community colleges change speech policies after judge rules in favor of a student's preaching

A tool that you have seen on college campuses to attempt to restrict free speech is the so-called "free speech zone."  Thanks to the efforts of one particular student at a system of community colleges in Virginia, teaming up with the Alliance Defending Freedom, an entire system has abolished its used of these so-called zones.

CitizenLink has a story on the circumstances surrounding Christian Parks, a student at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, who was preaching in the campus courtyard last year. A school police officer told him to stop because his words “might offend someone.” Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed suit this March.

This resulted in a revised speech policy, under which free speech will no longer be limited to designated areas. In addition, students do not have to be part of a student organization, or register with the college four days early, in order to exercise their free-speech rights.  This extends to all 23 campuses in the college system.

In response, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) attorney Travis Barham said, “We commend the Virginia Community College System for revising its speech policy to align with what a marketplace of ideas should be...The revised policies respect the rights of all students, regardless of their religious or political beliefs, to speak freely in the outdoor areas of campus.”

1 - Violence continues in Nigeria; hundreds of girls still held captive

ChristianHeadlines.com linked to a report on the CNN website that scores of residents in four villages in the northeastern Borno state of Nigeria, near the border with Cameroon, were killed Tuesday in Boko Haram raids, a lawmaker and residents said.

They said hundreds of homes were destroyed.

Heavily armed gunmen dressed as soldiers in all-terrain vehicles and on motorcycles attacked Goshe, Attagara, Agapalwa and Aganjara villages in Gwoza district, shooting residents and burning homes.

Villagers fled into neighboring Cameroon to escape the onslaughts, said Peter Biye, a lawmaker from the area who serves in the Nigerian lower parliament.

At the predominately Christian village of Attagara, the insurgents set fire to homes and a church and killed dozens of residents, according to Bulus Yashi, who fled to Gamboru Ngala.  He believes that it was a reprisal attack over casualties that the terrorist organization had suffered in two previous attacks in the village.

The WORLD website reports that in the recent wave of attacks, some 200 people were killed and perhaps at least 2000 were driven to an area where they were trapped without food or shelter.

CNN points out that Boko Haram Islamists have in recent times stepped up raids in northern Borno state near the border with Cameroon, Chad and Niger, pillaging villages, looting food stores and killing residents.

And, the website NJ.com reports that Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey was in Nigeria over the weekend.  He held a press conference, saying that Nigeria is ultimately responsible for securing the safe release of more than 200 girls who are still being held by Boko Haram.

But, Smith said, “The international community can and must play a robust supporting role especially in the area of intelligence and counterinsurgency training.”  Smith said he met this week with victims of Boko Haram, including one of the roughly 50 girls who have so far managed to escape.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The 3 - June 1, 2014

This week's edition of my week-in-review feature, "The 3," with 3 stories of relevance affecting the Christian community, begins with news out of Houston, Texas, where a new non-discrimination ordinance has passed the City Council, which extends equal protection based on sexual orientation. Also, a Colorado cake baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple received a ruling this week forcing him to bake wedding cakes for gay couples.  And, the top story involves news this graduation season, including the story of a student in Minnesota who will be allowed to include a Scripture in her graduation speech after being told originally she could not.

3 - Texas city passes new ordinance extending rights to homosexuals

The Houston City Council has approved a controversial gay rights ordinance that critics say would impede religious liberties.  According to CBN News, the 11-6 vote came late Wednesday after more than 12 hours of debate and months of protests from area churches and Christian business owners, who say the law is unconstitutional because it infringes on their right to speak out against homosexuality.

Willie Davis, pastor of MacGregor Palm Community Baptist Church in Houston, said that, "This is what the city has turned into. This is not equal rights; this is unequal rights..."

However, Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who is openly gay, said the measure protects sexual minorities.

She told reporters, "This is not the most important thing I have done or will do as mayor...But it is the most personally satisfying, the most personally meaningful thing that I will do as mayor."

CBN had reported that supporters had said the ordinance would protect sexual minorities while opponents had stated it wrongly elevates sexual orientation to a constitutionally protected class.

Some faith leaders in Houston support the measure but many say it will penalize businesses that want to practice biblical beliefs in the marketplace.

Dave Welch, executive director of The Houston Area Pastor Council, said Christian businesses facing complaints under the ordinance could be forced to pay a $500 daily fine, plus thousands of dollars in legal fees, for every complaint.

Alliance Defending Freedom had noted in an analysis that the ordinance offers no protection for rights of conscience.

2 - Colorado cake baker ordered to make cakes for same-sex ceremonies

Jack Phillips owns the Masterpiece Cakeshop in the Denver area.   In 2012, he was asked by two men to bake a wedding cake for the same-sex couple's ceremony - in a state where gay marriage is not legal.  He did not refuse to serve the two gay men who requested the cake; he said he would bake them any kind of cake - other than a wedding cake

The two men sued Phillips, and an administrative law judge ruled against Phillips last December, according to a report on the WORLD News Group website

The report states that this past Friday, the Civil Rights Commission in Colorado ruled unanimously against Phillips, and ordered him to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples, ruling his religious objections did not trump the state’s anti-discrimination statutes.

Phillips said the decision violates his First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise. “I will stand by my convictions until somebody shuts me down,” he told reporters after the ruling.

The panel issued its decision verbally, ordering Phillips to “stop discriminating against gay people,” document any customers he refuses to serve, provide “anti-discrimination training” for his staff, and report quarterly for two years.

Phillips said his bakery has been so overwhelmed by supporters eager to buy cookies and brownies that he does not currently make wedding cakes. His legal counsel team, which includes religious liberty attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom, is reportedly considering an appeal to the Colorado Court of Appeals.

1 - Religious freedom and graduation 

Graduation season has been a rather topsy-turvy affair this year, as students at several universities protested the choice of speaker for their commencement exercises.   And...of course, there are those incidences where students at some schools were facing issues concerning the expression of their faith.

A few weeks ago, a professor at East Carolina University had written a post telling students they could not mention God in their graduation statements.  But, a school official did step forward to clarify that religious references could be used in short, prepared statements that would be read at the graduation ceremony, according to the CBS Charlotte website.

And, a report from CitizenLink this week says that a Minnesota student will be able to read from the Bible during her graduation speech. She was originally told she would not be permitted to do so.

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) sent a letter to Minnesota Connections Academy school officials after learning they told Genesis Feliciano, a senior, that she would have to remove a verse from her speech — or not be able to deliver a speech at all.  According to Feliciano, a school official said, “We don’t allow Bible verses to be quoted in graduation speeches.”  The school reversed its position after receiving the letter.

Also, CitizenLink reported on a graduation controversy from last week in Arizona, where a group of seniors opened and closed their graduation ceremony in prayer. Pima High School student Esperanza Gonzalez opened the ceremony with prayer.  She told the Eastern Arizona Courier that, “The world keeps saying, ‘No to God, no to God...So, we said ‘Yes’ to God, because He has helped us throughout our entire high school career.”

Sean Rickert, superintendent of Pima Unified School District, told reporters he made the decision to discontinue formal invocations at graduations, because he was following the advice of school district legal counsel. However, he said that, "The fact that the students here at Pima High School felt that they wanted to show their true colors, as it were, by saying a prayer at the beginning and end of their graduation ceremony makes me very proud.”

Bruce Hausknecht, legal analyst for Focus on the Family said the district actually made the right call, as did the students. He said, “The Supreme Court, for better or worse, has drawn some clear lines regarding prayer at high school graduations, in order to avoid First Amendment ‘establishment of religion’ problems."  He added, "The school avoided an inevitable lawsuit and court order."

He explained, "And the parents and students stood up for their own constitutional rights and, in the process, honored God with their prayers and faithful witness to the community...That’s a win-win for everyone.”

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The 3 - May 25, 2014

This week's edition of The 3, my week-in-review feature, includes a development in a Florida school district, which has stated that students are allowed to read the Bible in class during non-instructional time.  Also, Federal judges struck down voter-approved amendments concerning traditional marriage in 2 states.  And, there's news on the pro-life front, as another state, Louisiana, has passed a bill requiring admitting privileges for those performing abortion, while a milestone was reached in Texas - the 20th abortion clinic closed since a pro-life bill passed last year.

3 - Florida school district says that students can read Bible 

There was some promising news out of Broward County, Florida earlier this week, as a report was released that the public school district there issued a statement saying that it was OK for the Bible to be read during free reading time because its content is found on the Accelerated Reader list.

This came in response to the story of Giovanni Rubeo, a fifth-grader from Ft. Lauderdale, FL, who, according to the Liberty Institute website, was reading his Bible in April during “free reading time” when he was told by his teacher to “put it on my desk.”  The teacher then informed Giovanni’s father in a phone message that the Bible and “those books” - meaning religious books - were not allowed in “my classroom.”

Giovanni’s father engaged the help of Liberty Institute.  According to Senior Counsel Jeremiah Dys, in response to the school district's statement:  "Now the Broward County Public Schools says it will allow the Bible as part of the Accelerated Reader Program and recanted what Tracy Clark, its spokesperson, said to the Miami Herald and Sun Sentinel on May 6, 2014. We are pleased they are now complying with the law and will allow students to read their Bible during free reading time and within the Accelerated Reader program.”

Dys added, “We do not know if the teacher is in trouble with the school district, but we will continue to monitor this school system carefully to ensure that their actions toward student religious liberty continue match their words."

As Liberty Institute points out, "The Rubeos are not alone in their battle to freely live out their faith. Other students are also experiencing infringement of their religious rights, though the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to carry out our faith in our daily lives free from government interference and prohibits government hostility to religion."
2 - 2 Federal judges rule against traditional definition of marriages, states won't appeal

This week, 2 more Federal judges declared state constitutional amendments affirming traditional marriage to be unconstitutional.  In Oregon, according to the WORLD website, U.S. District Judge Michael McShane made one of the declarations.  At least one county office immediately started issuing marriage licenses to gay couples who were waiting to wed.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum in February joined the list of state attorneys general who refused to defend their states’ marriage amendments in court. The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) petitioned the court to take up the defense on behalf of Oregonians, but was denied.  The organization appealed that decision, also asking Federal appeals judges for a stay of the ruling, which NOM anticipated would go in favor of gay marriage. The appeals court rejected NOM’s plea.

Another state Attorney General, Kathleen Kane of Pennsylvania, refused to defend that state's marriage amendment, and as WORLD reported, Pennsylvania’s Republican governor announced he will not appeal a ruling that struck down the state’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.   Gov. Tom Corbett’s office had mounted a defense to the legal challenge against the law after the state’s Democratic attorney general, Kathleen Kane, refused to do so.   According to WORLD, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones wrote in his opinion, “We now join the 12 federal district courts across the country which, when confronted with these inequities in their own states, have concluded that all couples deserve equal dignity in the realm of civil."

Corbett said he did not think an appeal would be successful, but he did say that, “As a Roman Catholic, the traditional teaching of my faith has not wavered...I continue to maintain the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

WORLD offered an analysis of "The State of Marriage," pointing out that until 2003, same-sex marriage was banned in all 50 states. It said that now, seventeen states now allow same-sex marriage, either through legislative action or voter referendum. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, judges in six states have struck down statues upholding traditional marriage. More judges likely will follow suit, and the question of whether states can determine what constitutes marriage within their borders will eventually be decided by the nation’s highest court.

1 - TX pro-life bill having effect on clinics, LA passes new requirements on abortion sellers, AL in court


Last year, it took a special session of the Legislature due to some blocking measures taken by abortion proponents, but lawmakers in Texas passed a landmark pro-life law requiring abortionists to have admitting privileges at a local hospital and to ban abortion after the point at which an unborn child can feel pain - around 20 weeks.  Now, the 20th abortion seller in Texas has shut its doors, according to a report on the CitizenLink website.

Northpark Medical Group (NMG) in Dallas has reportedly decided to close because it did not meet state standards. NMG is affiliated with Douglas Karpen, who faced a lawsuit last year alleging, according to the complaint, he killed babies after they were born.  A grand jury cleared him of the charges.

Texas Values President Jonathan Saenz is quoted as saying that, “These abortion clinics are choosing to shut down themselves because they’re refusing to follow common sense laws that protect women and show respect toward innocent human life...If it’s going to cost them more money or they’re going to have to do it in a safer way, they decide not to do it at all. It really is not about what’s best for women, it’s what’s best for their business.”

And, this week in Louisiana, the state Legislature there this week overwhelming passed a bill that requires doctors performing abortions to have practicing privileges at hospitals. According to a report on the ChristianHeadlines.com website, referencing The New York Times, this policy change may force three of the five abortion clinics in the state to shut down.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America president Cecile Richards said, “With similar restrictions passed in neighboring states over the objection of leading medical experts, we are deeply concerned that women in a vast stretch of this country are in read danger of losing the ability to access legal abortion safely."

Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas have passed similar laws. The admitting privileges requirement is being challenged in a Federal courtroom in Montgomery, and hearings continued this week.  The Montgomery Advertiser has been following the trial.

I would be concerned if a Federal court looks at becoming so involved in the regulation of abortion that it begins to determine how far is too far for a woman to travel to terminate the life of her pre-born baby and to perhaps select locations where abortions must be performed.  That would seem to be an outcome of the line of thinking presented by a judge in a hearing on Mississippi's law, according to the New York Times report.

The Times made this statement in its piece:
Legal experts say the legislation is raising a fundamental question: At what point is access to abortion so limited that it violates the right to the procedure granted by the United States Supreme Court in 1973 in Roe v. Wade?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The 3 - May 18, 2014

In this week's edition of "The 3," my week-in-review feature, I offer a follow-up to a story that broke last week, involving 2 Christian brothers whose plans for a cable television reality show were suspended, presumably because of their faith perspective.   And, a Sudanese lady faces death for marrying a Christian and refusing to convert to Islam.  The top story involves the continuing story of the hundreds of Nigeria girls who have been kidnapped and some of the efforts to bring their freedom - a story that can bring a greater awareness of Christians in peril around the world.

3 - Benham brothers remain in the news, bank rejection reversed

It appeared a few days ago that the strong faith stands of David and Jason Benham had cost them not only a television program on HGTV, but a relationship with their bank.  On Friday, The Daily Caller reported that SunTrust Banks had pulled all of its listed properties with the Benham brothers’ bank-owned property.

At the time, Jason Benham responded by saying, “If our faith costs us our HGTV show and our business, then so be it." Brother David said that, “Keeping us off television wasn’t enough, now this agenda to silence wants us out of the marketplace.”

Later on Friday, TheDC reported that after an uproar from conservative customers, SunTrust Banks had announced that afternoon that the decision to end its relationship with the Benhams had been reversed.

The bank didn’t go into detail about why they originally cut ties with the Benham brothers, though SunTrust said the decision was made by a third party vendor.  TheDC had reported earlier Friday that the vendor had told a Benham Brothers franchisee that the bank itself made the decision.

SunTrust spokeswoman Beth McKenna said, “We clarified our policies with our vendor and they have reinstated the listings with Benham Real Estate."  She added, “Mid-2013, we consolidated the management of certain residential assets with a third party vendor, which has the relationship with Benham Real Estate...While we do not publicly comment on specific vendor relationships, we don’t make choices on suppliers nor base business decisions on political factors, nor do we direct our third party vendors to do so.”

She added: “SunTrust supports the rights of all Americans to fully exercise their freedoms granted under the Constitution, including those with respect to free speech and freedom of religion.”

After publication of TheDC’s story earlier Friday, the publication stated that conservatives expressed outrage at the bank.

Chris Stone, founder of Faith Driven Consumer, had been quoted by The Daily Caller as saying, “SunTrust Banks appears to have punished David and Jason Benham by taking action against their business purely based on their Christian beliefs...This sends a loud and clear message to people of faith in America, you’re not welcome at SunTrust, take your business somewhere else.”

2 - Sudanese woman faces death penalty for marriage to Christian

Meriam Yahia Ibrahim is a women from Sudan, who was arrested in February and charged and sentenced to 100 lashes for adultery and death for apostasy, after Sudanese authorities were made aware of her marriage to a Christian man, according to a report on the Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) website. CSW reports that the court had given the Christian mother, who is pregnant with her second child, until this past Thursday to convert to Islam, implying that her sentence could be annulled or reduced if she did so.   She is currently detained in Omdurman Federal Women's Prison along with her 20-month-old son, Martin Wani.

In March, Meriam had testified that she is a life-long Christian, producing her marriage certificate where she is classified as Christian as proof of her religion.  Reportedly, three potential witnesses from western Sudan who went to the hearing to testify of Mrs Ibrahim’s lifelong adherence to Christianity were prevented from giving evidence.

After the court confirmed the death sentence, her lawyers asserted their intention to launch an appeal, a process which could take several months.  Her husband, Daniel Wani, has complained that throughout her incarceration his wife has been prevented from receiving visitors and, more seriously, from accessing vital medical treatment. A family member said: "we are concerned for her wellbeing; it is not very safe for her to be in the prison with dangerous criminals."

If the sentence is carried out Mrs Ibrahim will become the first person to be executed for apostasy under the 1991 penal code, prompting concerns that the charge may increasingly be used against anyone who converts from Islam.

CSW’s Chief Operating Officer Andy Dipper said, “CSW continues to call for the annulment the inhumane and unwarranted sentence and for the immediate of Mrs Ibrahim and her son, who is being held in violation of article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  As a Sudanese citizen Mrs Ibrahim is entitled to freedom of religion of belief under the constitution; consequently, this sentence amounts to a violation of the Sudanese Constitution and of international conventions to which Sudan is party, including the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.”
Christianity Today reports that the sentence is to be carried out two years after her second child's birth later this month.

1 - Nigerian kidnapping crisis continues, persecution of Christians moves front and center

Prayers, diplomacy, and even military assistance are elements bring a solution to the tragic situation involving almost 300 Nigerian girls, most of whom are from a Christian background, who are being held by the terrorist group Boko Haram.   Now, CBN.com is reporting that the Nigerian government could be ready to open a dialog with the terrorist organization in hopes of securing the release of the girls.

Since their kidnapping one month ago, it has been reported that some of the girls have been forced to convert to Islam and some have reportedly been forced to marry.

One Nigerian cabinet official says engaging in talks with the terrorist group could be key in bringing the girls home.

Nigeria's Minister of Special Duties Tanimu Turaki is quoted as saying, "A lot of promises have been made; we are still pursuing those promises."

That news comes one day after Mike Omeri, the director of the government's information agency, said the government will "use whatever kind of action" it takes to free the young women.  He said, "At the moment because all options are open, we are interacting with experts, military, and intelligence experts from other parts of the world...So these are part of the options that are available to us and many more."

Meanwhile, the United States, Israel, and Britain are assisting Nigeria in its rescue efforts. U.S. surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft have already begun flying over the West African nation.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said that, "...this is no small task. But we are certainly bringing resources to bear in our effort to assist the government."

A prayer vigil was held in the nation's capital on Wednesday, according to a report at the ChristianHeadlines.com website.  The vigil was set to feature 276 flowers, one for each of the kidnapped girls. An online stream was scheduled to be offered to the families of the young women.

Vigil organizer Reverend Patrick Mahoney is quoted as saying, “We stand in solidarity with all the kidnapped girls of Nigeria, their families and loved ones. We agree with Dr. Martin Luther King when he says, ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,’”

The New York Times reports that the heads of state of five West African countries, including Nigeria, met Saturday with Western officials and agreed to share intelligence and strengthen military cooperation to combat the regional threat from Boko Haram.

At the request of Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, President Fran├žois Hollande of France organized the meeting, which was also attended by the heads of state of Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Benin, countries that border Nigeria and that have long been suspicious of one another. The borders among the countries are notoriously porous, and Boko Haram’s adherents have easily slipped across them.

This incident is just another example of persecution of Christians at the hands of radical Isalmists.   The subject of Christian persecution has been elevated in the news recently; representatives of a variety of religious organizations held a press conference almost 2 weeks ago calling for assistance to persecuted Christians.  A WORLD News Service piece on the Christian Headlines website states that Reps. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA), co-chairs of the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus, hosted the event and urged American believers to pray, give, and advocate on behalf of suffering Christians. They also called on the U.S. Senate to pass legislation to create a State Department special envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia, which the House has twice passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.  In this instance, the nations of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt were highlighted.

And, a rally yesterday in Dallas called attention to the persecution of Christians in countries with predominantly Muslim governments, calling for the U.S. to cease funding these nations.   Pastor Stephen Broden organized the rally, and he spoke with me for Friday's edition of The Meeting House.    

These are all reminders of the dangerous world in which we live, and how important it is for believers in Christ to stand with those who are facing persecution for their faith.