Saturday, January 14, 2012

The 3 - January 14, 2012

This week's edition of "The 3" has a diverse lineup, including some tension in the Big Apple over the topic of renting public school buildings to churches, the involvement of evangelical leaders in declaring support for Presidential candidates, and a major Supreme Court ruling that upheld the rights of churches to govern employment decisions.

3 - New York pastors continue opposition to policy banning churches from renting public school buildings

Tension continues to build in New York City regarding a policy that the city has been trying to put into effect for a number of years - that churches cannot meet in public school buildings. That policy had been put on hold because one church, the Bronx Household of Faith, filed suit against the city. A Federal appeals court had agreed with the city, and the U.S. Supreme Court did not hear the case, which in effect upheld the lower court decision. So, the city began to move quickly, giving churches that had been renting the school buildings, generating revenue for the city, until February 12th to find other places to meet.

Local church leaders, including City Councilman and Pastor Fernando Cabrera, have been staging protests and attempting to attract public support for this policy, which would affect some 60 churches in the city. At Mayor Bloomberg's "State of the City" address this past Thursday, hundreds of protestors gathered, and dozens were arrested. Here is the report from CitizenLink.

Cabrera himself was arrested a week prior to this latest protest for blocking the entrance to a government building. Following that event, the city Housing Authority backed off from its previously announced decision to force churches meeting in community centers to find another place. The parties are now engaged in some dialogue about the next step. Cabrera was quoted in a CitizenLink story after he was arrested:
“There was one prayer. There was one song. Immediately after that, we were arrested,” Cabrera said. “The Wall Street occupiers were there for 40 days, and there were some very bad things happening there. But that was tolerated.”
And, this past Thursday, over 40 were arrested after their orderly display. Cabrera makes a compelling case - he points out there does seem to be a double standard: the city put up with Occupy Wall Street for a long period of time, but they were quick to punish church leaders in this instance. And, there was precious little media coverage of the Thursday series of events - in fact, my recent Google search yielded 5 sources: CNN (in its "Belief" blog) and 4 Christian outlets. This seems to be a major instance of a government entity attempting to inhibit religious expression because it is afraid of being charged with "endorsing" religion.

2 - Santorum receives support from majority of evangelical leaders who gather in Texas, Gingrich announces faith leaders' coalition

There was much anticipation of a meeting this past Friday and Saturday involving some 150 evangelical and conservative leaders. While organizers were plain in saying that it was not an "anti-Romney" meeting, there was a sentiment that the gathering would designate one of the GOP candidates, other than Romney, to be some sort of consensus choice for evangelicals. Going in, one of the high-profile leaders, Gary Bauer of American Values, last weekend had declared his support for Santorum. Then, Newt Gingrich's campaign had announced a Gingrich Faith Leaders Coalition, which had invited thousands of pastors to join in a conference call featuring the candidate on Thursday. The co-chairs of the campaign were announced as noted researcher George Barna and American Family Association head Donald Wildmon. Other leaders include San Diego pastor Jim Garlow, who has been a leader in one of Gingrich's organizations, Renewing American Leadership; also, Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel is in a leadership role. Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind series, also endorsed Gingrich.

The group that gathered at the Texas ranch of Southern Baptist leader Paul Pressler conducted a three-ballot vote, and on the third ballot, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum garnered the support of 75% of those present. According to a report in the Christian Post, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, the designated spokesman for the group, said,
“Everyone was invited here under the premise of ‘would you be willing to drop your support for someone if the group is able to reach a consensus on one candidate.’...Given the outcome, I think you see what the answer to that question was for the overwhelming majority of attendees.”
It is unclear what effect this action might have moving forward, but it does highlight for evangelicals some of the policy positions that certain candidates hold. According to Perkins, quoted in the Christian Post, before the third round of balloting was conducted, when Santorum received 85 of 114 votes cast, there was a “vigorous discussion of who can lead our country forward,” with the focal point of the debate centering on the repeal of President Obama’s health care program. Other major issues included reducing the debt ceiling and addressing pro-life issues. However, Perkins noted that only limited discussion involved the social issues of abortion and traditional marriage.

This could be an influential development, and it appears that the evangelical community has at least settled on two candidates - Santorum and Gingrich - even though Rick Perry was originally embraced by evangelicals at the outset, his support has waned, and perhaps his poor showing in the gathering in Texas, his home state, shows that there is little encouragement that he could actually now emerge as the nominee. A big question for Romney concerns how devoted the evangelical support will be if he wins the nomination. The results in the January 21st South Carolina primary will perhaps narrow the field down to four candidates: Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, and Ron Paul.

1 - Supreme Court gives unanimous victory to church regarding employment decisions

Churches and ministries have long enjoyed the freedom to make employment decisions, including who to hire, determining the qualifications and requisite beliefs of those whom they are hiring, and the grounds for which an employee might be terminated or reprimanded. In the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School vs. EEOC, a teacher at a Lutheran school had been fired from her position because the school did not believe she could fulfill her duties due to a sleep disorder. The school, in fact, had offered to pay a portion of her insurance premium in exchange for her resignation, which she refused to submit. She was terminated, and then filed suit against the school. Here is a report on the case from the Christian Examiner, originally filed by Baptist Press.

Churches and religious organizations have long operated under what is called a "ministerial exception", basically saying the First Amendment providing for freedom of religion supersedes employment-discrimination laws. According to Chief Justice John Roberts, the high court has never issued a ruling on it. That changed this week, as the Supreme Court ruled, in a unanimous, 9-0 decision, that the school did have a right to fire the teacher, and that the "ministerial exception" was, in fact, in line with the First Amendment - churches have the right to operate free from government interference in employment matters.

Had the decision gone the other way, this case could have had a devastating effect on churches, removing some of the protections they have traditionally enjoyed with respect to employment practices. This case, as well as an appeals court ruling last year upholding World Vision's requirement of adherence to a statement of faith for its employees, reinforces unique liberties afforded to religious organizations.

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