Sunday, June 09, 2013

The 3 - June 9, 2013

This week's edition of "The 3" features some areas that are not new to readers of the blog, including graduation prayer content.   A South Carolina graduate ripped up his pre-approved speech and led the Lord's Prayer, which is shown in a now-viral video.  Also, religious expression in the military continues to be a hot topic, with a couple of instances that appear to be restrictions on that type of expression making headlines this week.   And, the top story comes from Houston, where messengers gather this week for the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention - and the timing of two reports has presumably coincided with the scheduled meeting and an annual evangelistic effort was conducted yesterday.

3 - Graduation prayer controversy in S.C. as valedictorian leads Lord's Prayer

Another graduation video has gone viral, this one showing a valedictorian at a South Carolina high school who deviated from his prepared and his approved remarks to lead the crowd gathered for the ceremonies in the Lord's Prayer.

Roy Costner, who attended Liberty High School in Pickens, South Carolina, had received the requisite approval for his speech, but at a point in the message, he ripped his prepared text up and began to say the Lord's Prayer. As the crowd realized what he was doing, they began to cheer. He said, “I think most of you will understand when I say, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven..."
Apparently, throughout the state, the American Civil Liberties Union sent out letters at the beginning of the school year to warn districts about what they view as establishing religion. And, the Freedom From Religion Foundation had been challenging the specific district.    According to Todd Starnes of, FFRF holds the district responsible. The co-president of the organization is quoted as saying, “The valedictorian who so insensitively inflicted Christian prayer on a captive audience at a secular graduation ceremony, is a product of a school district which itself set an unconstitutional example by hosting school board prayer."

A school district spokesperson said the valedictorian will not be penalized for what he did and Costner told Fox News that he has absolutely no regrets.

“I’m happy with what I did,” Costner said. “I want this to glorify God. I want to use this as a witnessing tool and I hope others will stand up for God in our nation.”

This comes on the heels of the Texas student body president saying a prayer in his graduation presentation, despite the alleged protests of fellow students. 

There is quite a bit of misunderstanding in school districts across America about a student's religious rights, and we see it surfacing year after year in the graduation context.  It seems to me that by forcing students to submit the text of their messages could be regarded as a form of censorship, especially when there is an emphasis on pre-clearing speech that could be considered "religious".
2 - More religious freedom issues in the military

One of the areas that seems to contain a steady stream of news stories involves the rights of military members to express their faith.  Because we live in a heavily military area, I believe that relating these types of stories can be helpful to embolden our men and women in uniform as they seek to be not only excellent members of our armed forces, but also good soldiers of the Lord and citizens of His kingdom.   These types of stories also help to let those who are not associated with military know some of the challenges people of faith within their ranks are facing.

One story that circulated last week involved an Army Master Sergeant, who held a party to celebrate his promotion last August. According to a post on the Family Research Council website, it was a private event that the soldier paid for himself.   His commanding officers seemed to take issue with the invitations, which read, "In honor of my promotion and in honor of the Defense of Marriage Act, I'm serving Chick-fil-A sandwiches at my promotion party."  Of course, as FRC points out, the DOMA reference was a hat tip to Chick-fil-A owner Dan Cathy, who became the center of a national firestorm when he refused to back down from the biblical definition of marriage.

Shortly after the Master Sergeant's party, he was shocked to receive a letter of reprimand, followed by a negative efficiency report.  The stunned soldier contacted the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty for help. Ron Crews, who heads up the organization, explained that the Army initially talked about bringing "judicial punishment" against the man but decided to investigate first to see if he had "violated any other policy." Apparently, the Sergeant was warned to stop reading conservative books, as well.

This story began to make its rounds along with another instance of religious expression that was seemingly restricted at an Air Force base in Idaho.  FRC reports on the case of a California-based artist who was shocked to discover that one of his prints, the fifth in an inspirational series entitled, "Heroes", was considered too offensive for the Mountain Home Air Force Base dining hall in Idaho.  The painting portrays a modern-day policeman with a faint picture of a white knight behind him.  Across the bottom, the word, "Integrity" and the Scripture reference, "Blessed are the Peacemakers" from Matthew 5:9 are stenciled.   Objectors found the piece to be "repugnant" to objectors, who demanded its removal.   The Military Religious Freedom Foundation contacted the base, and reportedly, within 56 minutes, the painting was removed.  

Well-known Christian artist Ron DiCianni, who painted the portrait, says he was stunned -- first to hear the print was on the installation, and then to hear that it had been torn down.  In a statement, Ron explains how "deeply saddened" they are by the military's censorship.

He said that is was regrettable, "to see the apparent hostility of Pentagon leadership to a message that is clearly in keeping with the foundation of this country and the Air Force -- and whose communication is clearly protected by the First Amendment...The military is an embodiment of the ultimate peacemaker, a pursuit blessed in Scripture. It would seem this is a message that the Air Force should be willing to foster, not censor."

You can hear my conversation with the artist here.

FRC points out that Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana has offered an amendment to the most recent Defense Authorization bill that would help to protect religious freedom in the military. Fleming is quoted as saying, "The men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our freedoms should not have their own religious freedom jeopardized during their military service...[T]roubling reports indicate that the military may be focused only on protecting beliefs of service members and not the exercise or expression of those beliefs. My amendment is necessary to ensure that men and women of faith will not be discriminated against in the Armed Forces, and will be free to exercise their religious beliefs."  By a 33-26 vote, the Committee gave the green light to Fleming's measure, which stops the Pentagon from restricting religious speech -- except in cases of "military necessity."

Congressman Walter Jones (R-N.C.) added another layer of protection by introducing (and later passing) language that allows chaplains to pray "in Jesus's name."

Those that want to restrict religious content in symbols or speech so often demonstrate an extreme level of religious hostility in seeking to deny the freedom of religious expression.  When words like "inflict" are used to describe prayer, as in the S.C. valedictorian instance, or a word such as "repugnant" to describe a moving tribute to those who keep the peace, it shows that they are doing exactly what they are accusing people of faith are doing - they are attempting to force their belief system, or more accurately, lack of belief, on people of religious faith.  People with a personal faith are allowed to express themselves consistent with their First Amendment rights of religious expression.

1 - Baptists prepare for convention in light of new stats, launch "Crossover" event

This week in Houston, thousands of Southern Baptists will gather for the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the traditional run-up to the big event has already begun.

The Saturday before the convention, the Crossover event is conducted, consisting of block parties held throughout the area hosting the convention, an inviting opportunity to reach out to neighborhoods and to share the love of Jesus Christ.  According to the North American Mission Board website, this year, Crossover partnered with the larger initiative of the Union Baptist Association called Loving Houston, designed to be a long-term care and compassion movement.   The Launch week included fun, family friendly activities, sports events and many projects focused on serving the residents of Houston in tangible and practical ways.

There were also several important reports leading up to the convention.   According to Christianity Today, a self-assessment put together by the SBC, the "Annual Church Profile", indicated that the nearly 16-million-member denomination gained 270 churches over the past year, but lost more than 105,000 members and 188,000 Sunday worshipers, marking its sixth straight year of membership decline.

However, the SBC's 42 state conventions still claim almost 6 million Sunday worshipers at more than 46,000 churches.

Last year saw the second-lowest total of baptisms in 60 years. After a small increase last year, the new report shows a decline of 5.5 percent to just under 315,000 people. Reported baptisms have declined six of the last eight years with 2012 the lowest since 1948. The ratio of baptisms to total members increased to one baptism for every fifty members.

“While we celebrate every new baptized believer represented by these numbers, fewer reported baptisms is heartbreaking,” said Thom S. Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay, an arm of the SBC. “Southern Baptists cannot rest on what God accomplished through us in prior years.”

The self-described reaction of Frank Page, president of the SBC's executive committee: "God forgive us and God help us."

However, giving to international missions was its third-highest total ever.

And, something else notable in the week leading up to the convention was the release of the much-anticipated report on Calvinism in Southern Baptist life, compiled by a 19-member advisory committee, which issued its 3,200-word report to Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee President Frank Page, according to Baptist Press.  The report acknowledged tension and disagreement between Calvinists and non-Calvinists within the convention and urging Southern Baptists to "grant one another liberty" on the issue and "stand together" for the Great Commission.  Calvinists and non-Calvinists from all walks of SBC life served on the committee, which was assembled by Page and was not an official committee of the convention.

There will be numerous reports to the messengers on the convention floor next week, and a variety of resolutions are anticipated - the most high-profile one will most likely deal with the Convention's response to the Boy Scouts of America lifting its ban on openly homosexual members - the Convention could encourage its churches to disassociate with Scout troops or perhaps another response or language could be approved.

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