Sunday, December 01, 2013

The 3 - December 1, 2013

This week's edition of "The 3", which is my week-in-review feature, begins with a story about a court ruling from the previous Friday which has been producing responses since then, as news spread last week.   Also, a major announcement this past week came from the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the mandate forcing employers to provide contraception and abortion-inducing drugs in their health care plans.  And, the top story - giving thanks!

3 - Ministers, Christian organizations ponder ramifications of court decision on housing allowance

A ruling issued on Friday, November 22nd has brought response from a number of Christian organizations. According to Religion News Service, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that an Internal Revenue Service exemption that allows a clergy housing exemption, in order to reduce their Federal tax burden, is unconstitutional.

The exemption applies to an estimated 44,000 ministers, priests, rabbis, imams and others.  If the ruling stands, some clergy members could experience an estimated 5 to 10 percent cut in take-home pay.

The suit was filed by the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation on grounds that the housing allowance violates the separation of church and state and the constitutional guarantee of equal protection. The group’s founders have said that if tax-exempt religious groups are allowed a housing subsidy, other tax-exempt groups, such as FFRF, should get one, too.

CitizenLink quotes Dan Busby, President of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, as saying that, “We find the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s argument to be disingenuous...They indicate that they are harmed by the inability to claim the clergy housing exclusion for their leaders, when they actually never attempted to claim this exclusion.”  ECFA says on its website that, "The district court’s decision on the clergy housing exclusion may be appealed to the Seventh Circuit. Since the case was filed over two years ago, attorneys for the federal government have defended the constitutionality of the clergy housing exclusion and have argued that FFRF lacked legal standing to bring the challenge in the first place."

According to RNS, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and Southern Baptist-affiliated GuideStone Financial Resources plan to fight for the exemption.

ERLC President Russell Moore says, “The clergy housing allowance isn’t a government establishment of religion, but just the reverse...The allowance is neutral to all religions. Without it, clergy in small congregations of all sorts would be penalized and harmed.”

2 - U.S. Supreme Court to consider HHS contraception mandate

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it would hear Hobby Lobby's challenge to the government mandate requiring potential abortion-inducing drugs in employee health plans.  The arts-and-crafts chain, owned by evangelical Christians, filed suit against the Obama administration last year.

CitizenLink reports that in July, a federal court granted Hobby Lobby temporary relief from the mandate. This followed an appeals court order favoring such a reprieve. The administration then asked the high court to hear the case.

Also, the high court will take a case involving a Mennonite-owned business in Lancaster County, PA, Conestoga Wood Specialties, owned by the Hahn family. The lower courts ruled against the family.

The Obama administration required for-profit businesses to comply with the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate by August 2012.  Nonprofits - many of which are faith-based - have a so-called safe harbor until January.

More than 80 suits are in play.  According to CitizenLink, as of last Tuesday, courts have granted 32 injunctions, halting the mandate for for-profit businesses; six of these requests have been denied.

1 - Christians celebrate Thanksgiving, ministries demonstrate love of Christ

This past Thursday, people from a variety of faith backgrounds, even those without a faith perspective, participated in the celebration of Thanksgiving.   And, for a believer in Jesus Christ, we have plenty for which to be thankful, and Christians have a large opportunity to show our appreciation for what God has done in our lives by putting His love on display.

A report earlier last week highlighted the work of rescue missions across America, partnering with people in their local communities to reach out to those less fortunate.  A release from the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions (AGRM), the oldest and largest network of independent, faith-based crisis shelters and rehabilitation centers, estimated that its member-ministries served about 50 million meals annually, with the year-end holidays being one of the busiest times.

John Ashmen, president of AGRM, is quoted in a press release from the Association, posted on the Christian Newswire website: "All are saying the same thing: Volunteers and donations are consistent with that of past years, but the number of people in need seems to have increased substantially."

He also said that, "On behalf of every one of the rescue missions out there, I am extremely thankful for all of the volunteered hours and donated dollars...These gift are making the holidays -- starting with Thanksgiving -- meaningful to so many. But we all must remember that hunger and homelessness are not reserved for November and December. The problem is year-round."

And, in Houston, a number of area churches turned Black Friday into "Bless Friday".  According to its website, since 2010, Houston area churches have provided an alternative to frenzied Christmas shopping on the day after Thanksgiving.  Continuing this tradition, an assortment of churches scheduled community service projects on Friday, November 29. These churches ask families and individuals to celebrate Bless Friday as an alternative to Black Friday.

Chuck Fox, founder of Bless Friday, states, “People get our message that when we focus too much on buying things, we lose sight of the real reason for Christmas – remembering and honoring Christ. We want to begin our Christmas celebration by serving others just as Jesus did.”

Also, best-selling author Karen Kingsbury teamed up with the large Christian retail chain Family Christian Stores to help provide relief for children in Haiti.  According to a Christianity Today piece, Kingsbury, who has adopted three of her five sons from Haiti, said in a recent FCS press release, "Haiti is still recovering from the 2010 earthquake that ravaged the already-destitute nation. As in any crisis, many of those most gravely affected were the most vulnerable—infants and children...This Thanksgiving weekend, Family Christian and its customers will be telling these children that they are not forgotten, they are not abandoned and they are not without hope."

The chain said that it would donate 100 percent of its profits from customer purchases over the three-day holiday weekend to build a neonatal orphanage in Haiti.  Furthermore, it would match any donations made during the period.

And, the Christian Defense Coalition was asking Americans to leave an empty place at their Thanksgiving dinners as a sign of solidarity with Pastor Saeed Abedini and the persecuted church worldwide, according to

Pastor Abedini, an Iranian and US citizen, has been imprisoned in Iran for over a year as a result of his Christian faith. He is serving an eight-year sentence in one of the most notorious prisons in the world, Tehran's Evin prison.

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