Sunday, October 23, 2011

The 3 - October 23, 2011

This week's edition of "The 3", my week-in-review feature, includes a non-decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on a state law involving a "moment of silence". Also, a victory for religious freedom in actions concerning a Veterans' cemetery in Houston where there have been reports of religious references being suppressed. And, in the number 1 slot, Presidential politics and important issues to evangelical voters making the headlines and generating discussion this week.

3 - Illinois moment of silence in public schools upheld

While American law over the past few decades has attempted to place restrictions on the rights of religious expression by students in public schools, some states have acted to enact legislation that would allow for a so-called "moment of silence" at the beginning of the school day. While this period is not for the expressed purpose of prayer or silent reflection, it still allows for those who wish to pray to do so.

Interestingly enough, when Alabama attempted to establish a moment of silence, the law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1985 decision known as Wallace v. Jaffree. In that case, the High Court decided that Alabama legislators did not have a secular purpose for their law, since proponents had declared that their objective was to return prayer to the public schools.

In Illinois, even though the law is called the Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act, proponents wrote into the law the stipulation that the "moment of silence" would not be conducted as a religious exercise, in other words - a secular purpose. It is truly sad how far we have come when lawmakers have to write legislation that allows prayer, but then has to say that the vehicle allowing the prayer is secular.

Last year, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, when hearing the challenge of atheist Rob Sherman, defended by Michael Newdow - yes, the one who tried to take "under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance, decided the moment of silence in Illinois did not violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The judge writing for the majority in the appeals court also stated that the law did not single out one particular religion and served that secular purpose.

According to a report by the Illinois Family Institute:
"Matthew Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, believes the federal courts have made the right call. 'A moment of silence does not endorse a religion contrary to the First Amendment. A moment of silence is just that -- a moment for a person to pray or meditate or do nothing. They are not forcing anyone to pray or not to pray. It's an accommodation of people who may choose to use this time for prayer.'"

Also, Judge Manion of the 7th Circuit "drew that distinction between the Alabama and Illinois statutes, saying that Illinois had 'offered' a secular purpose for their law, namely, 'establishing a period of calm the students and prepare them for a day of learning.' Illinois joins Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia in requiring a dedicated 'moment of silence' at the beginning of the school day."

And, while these states do offer the opportunity for prayer in a more official time that is set aside, students have broad rights to engage in religious conversation and activity on their own throughout the school day, as well as in non-instructional time, when Christian clubs can meet, with the same access as other school-sanctioned organizations.

2 - Houston veterans' cemetery case regarding religious discrimination settled

A controversy involving religious expression at the Houston National Cemetery has been simmering for months, and just this week, a proposed settlement agreement was accepted by the U.S. Veterans' Administration (VA). The Houston Chronicle had this report on the proposal.

Local groups had accused VA officials of limiting some forms of religious speech, including references to "Jesus" and "God", at special services at the cemetery. One instance involved local pastor Scott Rainey, who took the cemetery to court after he was asked to remove the name of Jesus Christ out of his planned Memorial Day speech. A Federal judge upheld his right to say the name, and he did so on that special holiday.

This case hopefully sends a strong message to Federal agencies who attempt to limit the First Amendment rights of free speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion. Veterans in the Houston area were bold to speak out about instances where they saw attempts to restrict the free speech rights that so many American service men and women had paid for with their lives

1 - Candidates' positions on life, faith come under scrutiny

The issue of abortion and its role in the contest for the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination came to the forefront this week in light of comments by GOP frontrunner Herman Cain, when pressed for answers by Piers Morgan on the issue of abortion in cases of rape and incest. Apparently, what Cain had intended to say was that in those cases, families should have the right to make a decision without government interference. This is consistent with a view of many pro-lifers that abortion should be illegal, except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother's life. But, many interpreted the comments more broadly, and sensed that Cain might be less pro-life than some had previously thought.

Cain attempted to clarity his remarks on Piers Morgan, as well as on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, with a statement on his website. His comments centered around his perception of the role of the President, who he said does not have the authority to "order" anyone not to seek an abortion.

The discussion of Cain's pro-life credentials can also be broadened to include the other candidates. CitizenLink, in a piece on the Cain controversy, shared a brief summary of the GOP contenders' views on abortion:

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann had made statements similar to some of Cain’s in the past — that life is a fundamental right, and she is 100 percent pro-life “from conception” — without backing away. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said he supports a right-to-life amendment and making second-trimester abortions illegal. Texas Gov. Rick Perry opposes federal funding for abortion and thinks it should only be legal in the case of rape, incest or to save the mother’s life. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the government should “stop forcing pro-choice morality on religious organizations.” Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum says no abortion should be legal, even in the case of rape or incest. Texas Rep. Ron Paul has said he supports legislation defining life as beginning at conception and that abortion is murder, but also that abortion laws should be made at the state level and that emergency contraception allows for individual moral choices to be made. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney used to support abortion and now says he believes “in the sanctity of life from the very beginning until the very end.”
According to The Christian Post, candidates who visited the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition banquet on Saturday night attempted to appeal to evangelical voters, as they highlighted their positions on abortion and gay marriage. 6 out of the 8 major candidates spoke - the exceptions were Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman.

The issue of the candidates' religious beliefs is another topic that has been generating some press coverage, and Christianity Today published an excerpt of a particular part of the Tuesday night Presidential debate, dealing with the comments of First Baptist/Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress' comments at the Values Voter Summit relative to Mitt Romney's Mormonism:

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who are both Roman Catholic, argued that faith says a lot about a candidate.

“It's a legitimate thing to look at as to what the tenets and teachings of that faith are with respect to how you live your life and how you would govern this country,” Santorum said. “With respect to what is the road to salvation, that's a whole different story. That's not applicable to what the role is of being the president or a senator or any other job.”

Gingrich offered a similar view. “None of us should rush in judgment of others in the way in which they approach God,” Gingrich said. “But I think all of us would also agree that there's a very central part of your faith in how you approach public life. And I, frankly, would be really worried if somebody assured me that nothing in their faith would affect their judgments, because then I'd wonder, where's your judgment -- how can you have judgment if you have no faith? And how can I trust you with power if you don't pray?”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry simply said his faith is ingrained. "I can no more remove my faith than I can that I'm the son of a tenant farmer," he said.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, as a Mormon, faced public resistance to his religion during his 2008 run for the nomination. The issue has only recently haunted his candidacy this cycle, highlighted again with comments made by a Southern Baptist pastor--and Perry supporter--Robert Jeffress’ that ignited a controversy at a summit hosted by the Family Research Council.

"I don't suggest you distance yourself from your faith any more than I would,” Romney told Perry. “[But] the founders of this country went to great length to make sure -- and even put it in the Constitution -- that we would not choose people who represent us in government based upon their religion, that this would be a nation that recognized and respected other faiths, where there's a plurality of faiths, where there was tolerance for other people and faiths.”

Romney took advantage of the topic to criticize “the concept that we select people based on the church or the synagogue they go to,” which he called “very dangerous and an enormous departure from the principles of our Constitution.”

Romney added, “With regards to the disparaging comments about my faith, I've heard worse, so I'm not going to lose sleep over that.”

In an op-ed for the Washington Post published Tuesday, Jeffress said critics were attempting to eliminate a discussion about religion from political discourse, arguing that “our religious beliefs define the very essence of who we are.
One anticipated topic of conversation in the weeks to come, I believe, will be the extent to which a candidate's religious faith should influence our decision about whether or not to vote for him or her. I commonly ask candidates how their religious faith affects their decisions - I want to know if a person's beliefs will guide his or her decisions on policy matters, rather than be kept separate. While the Constitution says there is no religious test for the office of the President, I still would feel more comfortable with someone who says that their decisions are guided by that faith.

Now, other factors are there, such as competency and experience - and I would rather elect a non-Christian who reflects my values and has a competent track record than a professing Christian in whom I could not place confidence that he or she could do the job. And, it is true that we are not electing a "clergy-in-chief", but isn't it contradictory to say that we would like Godly people to run for office and then turn around and state that a candidate's faith doesn't matter?

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