Sunday, September 28, 2014

The 3 - September 28, 2014

On this week's edition of "The 3," my week-in-review feature, I shine the spotlight on hundreds of events this week remembering the tortuous imprisonment of Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini, which has now hit the 2-year mark.  Also, a leadership committee of the Southern Baptist Convention has severed ties with a church for its affirmation of the gay lifestyle.  And, the top story comes from the nation's capital, where thousands gathered to be reinforced in their determination to vote in accordance with their conservative values.

3 - Hundreds of prayer rallies support Pastor Saeed

This past Thursday, to commemorate the completion of two years of imprisonment in Iran for Pastor Saeed Abedini, an estimated 460 prayer vigils were scheduled to take place in 30 countries and territories, according to Christianity Today.   Two years ago, Abedini, a convert from Islam to Christianity, made one of his frequent trips to Iran.   The pastor, an Iranian-American citizen, had been warned by the Muslim nation against his involvement with house churches, so he had returned instead to continue building a government-approved orphanage. While there, Abedini was pulled off a bus, charged with undermining national security, and sentenced to eight years in prison.

During his imprisonment, he has reportedly been tortured and pressured to renounce his Christian faith. His release has been requested by Billy Graham, President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and the United Nations.

Jordan Sekulow, Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice, the ACLJ, is quoted as saying, “Pastor Saeed has become the face of the persecuted Christian church worldwide, one of many Christians around the world who face imprisonment, beatings and even death for their faith."

The Christianity Today piece points out that in the midst of religious intimidation, Iran is seeing a record number of conversions, according to Elam Ministries, speculating that a crackdown on house churches seems to be making the faith more appealing to Iranians disillusioned with their government.

This week, Elam celebrated a "massive milestone" for the Iranian church: a new translation of the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into Persian.

2 - Southern Baptist leadership committee breaks ties with gay-affirming church

The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention voted unanimously on Tuesday, September 23rd to break ties with New Heart Community Church in La Mirada, CA, after determining it was condoning “homosexual behavior.”  That's according to a report on the Religion News Service website, which quotes a spokesman for the group, Roger Oldham, as saying that, “We believe that, following the lead of Pastor Danny Cortez, New Heart Community Church has walked away from the Southern Baptist Convention’s core biblical values.” Oldham said Cortez attended the meeting and indicated that he had officiated at a same-sex wedding.

The article states that the move came less than two weeks after the California Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Board voted unanimously to withdraw fellowship from the congregation because of the announcement by Cortez that he affirmed gays — including his teenage son — and his church had taken a “third way” on homosexuality.

1 - Values Voters gather in DC, call attention to religious freedom, participate in straw poll

Each year, Family Research Council Action, headed by Tony Perkins, invites a number of high-profile pro-family conservatives to speak at its Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC.  This year, according to a report on the WORLD News Group website, religious liberty took center stage.  The winner of this year's Presidential Straw Poll, Senator Ted Cruz, called for a new president who would make freedom a foreign policy priority.  Cruz is quoted as saying, “Oh, the vacuum of American leadership we see in the world...We need a president who will speak out for people of faith, prisoners of conscience.”

Last year’s speakers honed in on what are commonly called, "social issues," but on Friday, FRC Action President Tony Perkins noted, “Without religious freedom, we lose the ability to even address those other issues."

In the straw poll, Cruz won 25 percent of the votes cast by those who attended the event.  Dr. Ben Carson, took 20 percent of the vote, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at 12 percent.

Carson won the vice-presidential poll, with 22 percent of the vote. Cruz took second with nearly 14 percent, and Louisiana Govenor Bobby Jindal took third with nearly 11 percent.

The annual summit draws about 2,000 conservatives to the nation’s capitol to rally around key issues.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The 3 - September 21, 2014

Here is another edition of my week-in-review feature, "The 3," with three stories of relevance to the Christian community.  This week, the Sudanese woman who was sentenced to death, refused to reject her Christian faith, and was ultimately released by Sudan authorities, spoke out on her ordeal.  Also, an assortment of stories received attention this week dealing with religious expression on or around the football field.  And, the top story: as many had feared, a new report issued this week demonstrated that over 1,000 health care plans included Federal funds, taxpayer funds, being used to pay for abortions.

3 - Meriam Ibrahim speaks out

Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman who faced a death sentence and who did not recant her Christian faith, has been back in the U.S. since August 1st, and this week spoke out on Fox News about her ordeal.

On The Kelly File, she said that, "the situation was difficult but I was sure God would stand by my side,” according to a piece on the website.

She reminded host Megyn Kelly that,“there are many Meriams in Sudan and throughout the world. It’s not just me.”

Ibrahim says her mother was an Ethiopian Christian and her father was a Muslim who abandoned the family when she was a child.  According to the Fox News website, she had told the Sudanese high court that, “I was never a Muslim,” adding, “I was raised a Christian from the start.”

She told Kelly that while she was in prison she was visited by imams from the Muslim Scholars Association who recited parts of the Koran to her.  She is quoted as saying, “My faith was the only weapon that I had in these confrontations with imams and Muslim scholars because that’s what I believe.”

Her husband, Daniel Wani, is a Christian from South Sudan and a U.S. citizen since 2005.  The couple already had a son, and while imprisoned, Meriam gave birth to a daughter.  She is quoted as saying that, “I had to give birth with chains on my ankles,” adding, “It was difficult.”

2 - God on the gridiron: ASU helmet decision reversed, cheerleaders lead Lord's Prayer, RG3 wears Christian t-shirt, coach claims he was fired for supporting prayer

This week, there were several stories that emerged, perhaps one or even none of them which would alone enter "The 3," but rolled into one entry, you can see a compelling storyline - again this season, like others before it, there is a concern about freedom of religious expression on or around the gridiron.

Recently, a story began to circulate about a group of high school cheerleaders in Oneida, Tennessee, who decided that after their school district banned an opening prayer on their home stadium's public address system, they would say The Lord's Prayer.  When they did this at a recent Friday night game, many in the bleachers joined in.  The cheerleaders attracted widespread attention.  WBIR-TV has this story.

Also, on the high school level, reports that Gary Weiss, a football coach at Catalina Foothills High School in Tucson, Arizona, claims he was removed from his position because he allowed players to pray before and after games.

According to a KVOA-TV report that was cited, Weiss, formerly a volunteer coach with the district, said that he was given an ultimatum by school officials: tell players to stop praying or lose his position. He refused and opted for the latter option. He told the TV station that, "My concern is the rights of the kids to do what is their right to do."

District administrators said that voluntary prayer is permitted, but that staff members cannot facilitate or promote student invocations. Weiss denied that adults were leading the prayers and he said that that the prayers were inclusive.

Then, there's a follow-up to last week's story about the cross decals that had been placed on the helmets of the players at Arkansas State University. After a local attorney contacted the school saying it was a constitutional violation, the university ordered the decals removed or the design changed so that it no longer resembled a cross. This week, officials decided to allow members of the university’s football team to wear a cross decal on their helmets—as long as the players personally choose to affix them and pay for the stickers themselves. quotes Liberty Institute attorney Hiram Sasser as saying, "The university officials and the Arkansas attorney general did the right thing restoring the religious liberty and free speech rights of the players to have the original cross sticker design if they so choose and we commend them for doing so.”

Finally, there's the story involving NFL Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, who showed up at a post-game press conference wearing a shirt displaying, in large letters, the message, "Know Jesus, Know Peace," which offers a play on words, in that the letters "K" and "W" are black, while the others are white, so the message could also read, "No (N-O) Jesus, No Peace."

Fox News reported that Michael Phillips, a reporter from The Richmond Times-Dispatch, posted on Twitter that an NFL uniform inspector made the quarterback turn the shirt inside out. Phillips said that the reason was that it was not a Nike product.

CSN Washington reported that a Redskins spokesperson denied reports that RG3 was forced to flip the shirt by the NFL. The spokesperson said Griffin flipped the shirt on his own to avoid a possible fine. CSN cites NFL bylaws that state a player cannot wear clothing that sends a personal message on game days. Griffin has reportedly been fined in the past for wearing Adidas gear on game days.

Other players, however, were seen at the podium not wearing a Nike shirt, including Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan. Nike reportedly has a corporate deal with the NFL.

In summary, the cheerleaders found an alternative to the limitation on prayer, the coach is speaking out about what he feels is an unfair characterization of his faith expressions, the university rethought its position on players' freedom of expression, and RG3 faced limitations on what he could wear, especially if it contained a religious message.  These are all instances of public expressions of faith surrounding the football field, several in response to attempts to limit the rights of individuals or teams to demonstrate their faith in a public setting.

1 - Government Accountability Office confirms it: taxpayers fund abortion in Affordable Care Act

In the period of time leading up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, opponents voiced their concern about the health care reform law including taxpayer funding of abortion.  Already, there has been much attention given to the funding of abortion through the contraceptive and abortion pill mandate, and a new report released this week by the Government Accountability Office confirms the concerns of pro-life people who warned that Federal funds could be used to fund abortion.

According to Concerned Women for America, the GAO report found that all Americans, even in states that have excluded abortion from their exchanges, are being forced to subsidize these services. It also found that when Americans tried to determine whether abortion coverage was included in their plan, that information was not readily available.

Concerned Women for America CEO and President Penny Nance is quoted as saying: “In a joint session of Congress in September 2009, President Obama unequivocally said that under the health care plan he proposed, ‘no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place.’"  (Here is a link to the transcript.)

Nance went on to say, "Now we know that at least 1,036 plans cover abortion, and the so-called ‘surcharge’ for abortion coverage is simply an accounting gimmick. For a president who claims to pursue the most transparent administration, he continues to reject calls to shed light on what exactly is in plans on the health care exchange."

She pointed out that, “We deserve to know from our providers just what our insurance plans cover and, even more, we deserve to be assured that we will not be forced to pay for abortions under the guise of health care."

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The 3 - September 14, 2014

In this edition of "The 3," my week-in-review feature, I take a look at faith on campus, as one university's football team was told that it was unconstitutional to place crosses on their helmets to honor people associated with the program who had died.   Also, one of America's leading Christian businessmen passed away this past week.  And, Christians gathered to respond in prayer on the anniversary of 9/11.

3 - University removes cross from football team helmets

Faith on campus is a topic area that emerges from time-to-time, and this week, college football players at Arkansas State University had decided to honor the memory to two individuals who passed away during the past year by placing cross decals on their helmets. According to Todd Starnes of Fox News, the cross decals were meant to memorialize former player Markel Owens and former equipment manager Barry Weyer, said athletic director Terry Mohajir.  Weyer was killed in a June car crash. Owens was gunned down in Tennessee in January.

Starnes wrote:
These young men were simply trying to do a good deed. They were standing up for their fallen teammates. It’s really too bad the university could not stand up for the team.
Barry Weyer, Sr., told him that the players and coaches voluntarily decided to memorialize his son and Owens.  He is quoted as saying, "The players knew they were both Christians so they decided to use the cross along with their initials...They wanted to carry the spirits of Markel and Barry Don onto the field for one more season.”

It was a decision that had the full support of Mohajir, who said, "I support our students’ expression of their faith...I am 100 percent behind our students and coaches.”

After the recent televised game between Arkansas State and Tennessee, university counsel Lucinda McDaniel  received a letter from a local attorney complaining about the decal.  McDaniel wrote to Mohajir: “While we could argue that the cross with the initials of the fallen student and trainer merely memorialize their passing, the symbol we have authorized to convey that message is a Christian cross.”

She stated that, “If the bottom of the cross can be cut off so that the symbol is a plus sign (+) there should be no problem...It is the Christian symbol which has caused the legal objection.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation then fired off a letter congratulating the university on cleansing the helmets of the Christian symbol.  According to Starnes, FFRF co-presidents Annie Lauire Gaylor and Dan Barker went so far as to suggest alternative ways for the football players to mourn.

Mohajir is quoted as saying, “I don’t even kinda-sorta care about any organization that tells our students how to grieve...Everybody grieves differently. I don’t think anybody has the right to tell our students how to memorialize their colleagues, their classmates or any loved ones they have.”

Meanwhile, at Penn State University, officials had removed Gideon Bibles from guest rooms because of an FFRF challenge.   According to its media website, Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter Thursday to Penn State encouraging it to reverse its decision. ADF recently sent a similar letter to the U.S. Navy, which later reversed its decision to remove Bibles from guest rooms after it also received a complaint from FFRF.

ADF Litigation Staff Counsel Travis Barham is quoted as saying, "Public universities should understand that the First Amendment does not require them to purge a book from their guest rooms just because it happens to be religious. Rather, the Constitution requires them to accommodate religion...The Bibles can legitimately stay in the guest rooms because they simply represent a discrete way to accommodate the needs of traveling guests, not some sort of government effort to promote religion.”

2 - Chick-Fil-A founder passes away at 93

The founder of Chick-Fil-A, Truett Cathy, died early in the morning on Monday, September 8th at the age of 93.

In an article on the Baptist Press website, Cathy was quoted as having said, "I was not so committed to financial success that I was willing to abandon my principles and priorities...Our decision to close on Sunday was our way of honoring God and of directing our attention to things that mattered more than our business."

Mel Blackaby, senior pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church in Jonesboro, the site of Cathy's funeral service on Wednesday, described Cathy as "perhaps the most gracious Christian man I have ever known, and it was a privilege to be his pastor."

In a statement to The Christian Index of the Georgia Baptist Convention, he said, "Having taught eighth-grade boys Sunday School class for 52 years, he chose to invest his life in the next generation of leaders...Everywhere I go, I meet leaders with a smile on their face who say, 'I am one of Truett's boys!'

The article points out that more than 1,800 Chick-fil-A restaurants operate in 40 states and Washington, D.C., recording $5 billion in annual sales in 2013 and 47 consecutive years of annual sales increases. Chick-fil-A was listed among the "Top 20 Brands with the Most Loyal Fans on Facebook" in a report by market research firm LoudDoor released in August.

Baptist Press reported that Cathy was a native of Eatonton, GA, who moved to Atlanta with his family at age 4. His key Bible verse was Proverbs 22:1: "A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and loving favor rather than silver and gold."

Cathy and his brother Ben opened their first restaurant in 1946, a venue so small they named it The Dwarf Grill (later, The Dwarf House). A second suburban Atlanta location opened in 1951 but burned down in 1960. In 1967 Cathy opened the first Chick-fil-A in a mall, followed in 1986 by the first free-standing Chick-fil-A.

Another quote: "We live in a changing world, but we need to be reminded that the important things have not changed...I have always encouraged my restaurant operators and team members to give back to the local community. We should be about more than just selling chicken; we should be a part of our customers' lives and the communities in which we serve."

1 - Prayer gatherings take place across America on 9/11 anniversary in light of terrorist fears, Middle East persecution

Christians marked the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy by gathering in prayer.  One example took place in New York City, according to a piece on the WORLD Magazine website.  Churches there gathered at the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association on the Upper West Side planned to pray not for the safety of Manhattan but for the persecuted Christians in the Middle East.   You can hear my recent interview with the writer of the article, Emily Belz, here.

The report states that Diana Mao organized the gathering.  She works for an anti-trafficking organization in the city and attends Times Square Church.  She has a friend working for the UN in Iraq who sends her updates from the ground there. Johanna Cappon, who attends and helps lead worship at Every Nation Church, also helped organize. Both Mao and Cappon have traveled in the Middle East.

Mao said, “When Iraq unfolded I was talking to friends and we were thinking about what we could do...It was hard to hear about all the atrocities that were happening. We want to take action and don’t know where to start. Prayer is a good place to start.”

The women reached out to networks of other big and small evangelical churches in the city: Trinity Grace Church, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Baptist churches, and charismatic churches. Mao described the gathering as "...the the body coming together."

Last month, members at churches in the city set up a prayer chain for Iraq. One member from Apostles Church, an evangelical church with multiple parishes in the city, set up a Google spreadsheet of prayer needs and emailed it to his church, and those members forwarded it on to other church email lists throughout the city. People from various evangelical churches—Apostles, Redeemer, Trinity Grace, and others—signed up for 15-minute slots to pray over the course of five days.

Also, the Awakening America Alliance was involved again this year in sponsoring and encouraging Cry Out America gatherings across the nation.   Kay Horner, the Executive Director of the Alliance, wrote this:
Today, as hundreds of thousands are crying out in extraordinary, united prayer for a Christ-awakening in America, we would do well to ask ourselves: “We’ve prayed… now what? What follows the plethora of 9/11 prayers, resonating across our nation?”
She went on to say:
What do you see? What do you dream for America’s awakened church? If today’s dreams awaken tomorrow’s destiny, how will we go forward from our 9/11 prayer gatherings to impact a culture in desperate need for transformation?
We must be consistent and intentional to pursue what God envisions within us. We must do so with holiness, for the One who has called us is holy. We must pursue His harvest with true, not feigned, humility because as we awake, arise, and shine, our shining will be with His reflected glory and not our own. We will be awakened to an unsatiated hunger for more.
It is a reasonable and effective response, as we reflect on the tragedy of 9/11, to call upon the Lord to strengthen our hearts and to ask Him to move in a powerful way upon our nation.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The 3 - September 7, 2014

In this week's edition of my week-in-review feature, "The 3," there was some heartening news about traditional marriage from a Federal judge this week, but a Federal appeals court struck down marriage laws in two states.  In another court development, the Administration has backed off on appealing some temporary measures in place preventing the contraception mandate from going to effect in certain cases.   And, news concerning Christians in the Middle East continues to raise concerns, as the growth of the ISIS terror organization is causing alarm.

3 - Federal court upholds LA marriage amendment, Federal appeals court strikes down WI and IN marriage laws

Up until several weeks ago, there was seemingly a fairly significant losing streak of court decisions that stated that marriage amendments in various states defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman were unconstitutional.  Then came a ruling from a district judge in Tennessee upholding that state's definition of marriage.  And, this week, a Federal court judge in Louisiana ruled in support of that state's marriage law.

According to Tony Perkins' Washington Update from the Family Research Council, Federal Judge Martin Feldman said, "he was reluctant to throw away centuries of natural, social science, and legal tradition to satiate a radical fringe."

He wrote, "This Court is persuaded that Louisiana has a legitimate interest... whether obsolete in the opinion of some, or not, in the opinion of linking children to an intact family formed by their two biological parents."

Perkins went on to say,
Relying on research -- not the Left's misshapen idea of "rights" -- the Reagan appointee was blunt about the danger of chasing the political and cultural winds. "Public attitude might be becoming more diverse, but any right to same-sex marriage is not yet so entrenched as to be fundamental," he said plainly.
He is quoted as saying, "The state of Louisiana has a legitimate interest under a rational basis standard of review for addressing the meaning of marriage through the democratic process."

Later in the week, and not unexpectedly, in light of one particular judge's comments in oral arguments, a Federal appeals court ruled against marriage laws in Wisconsin and Indiana.

CitizenLink reports that the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down marriage law in Wisconsin and Indiana.

Julaine Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Action, was quoted as saying that she was disappointed, but not surprised by the decision.  She pointed out that, "We knew we had the most liberal panel of judges on the 7th Circuit...When they denied the state’s request to have the case heard before all ten judges on the court, we pretty much knew what to expect.”

Appling had harsh words for Judge Richard Posner, one of the three who heard the case. She related that she was in the courtroom and said, "I knew then what the outcome was going to be. Judge Posner in particular made his opinion quite clear. His clarity took a backseat only to his sarcasm.”

According to the WORLD Magazine website, Posner said that only “hate” is behind wanting to order society around one-man-one-woman unions and used the phrase “savage discrimination” to describe it.

2 - Government drops appeals in cases involving contraception mandate

The Alliance Defending Freedom reports that in the face of mounting court losses, the Obama administration Wednesday abandoned its appeals in several lawsuits against the contraception and abortion-pill mandate. The ADF press release states that, "The preliminary injunctions that the federal district courts issued in all of the cases where the administration is dropping its appeals will remain in effect until the cases are litigated to conclusion."

As the release points out, "The surrender means that existing court orders which protect family businesses in those cases from violating their religious beliefs will stand while the lawsuits proceed."  This includes the Hobby Lobby case itself.

ADF Senior Legal Counsel Matt Bowman is quoted as saying, “The administration was right to abandon its fight against the family businesses involved in these particular cases in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in June. In a free and diverse society, we respect the freedom to live out our convictions. For these families, that means not being forced to participate in distributing abortion drugs and devices.”

1 - Christians prepare for threat of ISIS while NATO leaders meet to craft plan to combat the terror group's spread

This week, throughout the Middle East, the threat of ISIS continues to cast a long shadow over the entire region, as NATO leaders met and discussed how their nations would respond to the advancement of this terrorist group.   And, the WORLD Magazine website reported that Christians in Lebanon are now taking steps to protect themselves against the onslaught of the Islamic State.

The report says that,"as Christians flee Syria and Iraq to escape the radical Islamic State, Lebanese Christians are preparing themselves for the possibility of hostilities flowing over their border."  It points out that for the first time since the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990, Lebanese Christians are arming themselves for self-defense, including deploying on hills surrounding their communities, and even lying in ambush.

Vandals spray-painted the walls of several churches in northern Lebanon this past week with the words, “The Islamic State is coming,” after someone posted a video online of boys burning an Islamic flag in a Christian neighborhood in Beirut.

Meanwhile, WORLD reports that President Obama, at a press conference near the end of a two-day NATO summit in Wales, said ISIS (also called Islamic State or ISIL) has an ideology of “extremist nihilism” and is a “savage organization” that must be stopped.

To that end, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with leaders from nine other nations at the NATO summit to forge an international alliance against ISIS. One of the group’s main goals will be to try to cut off the terrorists’ financial resources, the other to provide military support to Iraq as it fights the group. The NATO allies hope to have a plan ready in time for the United Nations’ General Assembly meeting this month.  Issues surrounding fighting ISIS in Syria remain.