As numbers shrink, Roman Catholic church in India urges flock to have more children

NEW DELHI (AP) _ Worried about its dwindling numbers, the Roman Catholic Church in southern India is exhorting its flock to have more children, with some parishes offering free schooling, medical care and even cash bonuses for large families.

The strategy comes as India's population tops 1.2 billion, making it the second most populous country in the world after China, and runs counter to a national government policy of limiting family size.

But in the southern state of Kerala, where Catholics have long been a large, important minority, church authorities believe the state's overall Christian population could drop to 17 percent this year, down from 19.5 percent in 1991. While they don't have precise numbers for the Catholic population, they believe it is also dropping sharply.

"The Christian community in Kerala is dwindling. We realized that if the numbers decreased further, it would have a negative impact on the community," said Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India in New Delhi.

Christianity is widely thought to have come to India in the year 52, when St. Thomas came to Kerala after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

The state's Muslim population grew by 1.7 percent between 1991 and 2001, while the Hindu and Christian populations have fallen.

____

Church officials bless benefactors as new shepherds of struggling Philly Catholic school

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ An independent group of benefactors announced an agreement Tuesday to take over a struggling Roman Catholic school from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, pledging to keep its religious identity while making it financially sustainable for generations to come.

The new arrangement _ the first of its kind in the archdiocese _ transfers responsibility for the St. Martin de Porres elementary school from the church to a lay board of directors.

Board members want to ensure St. Martin's continued existence and affordability in North Philadelphia, where many public schools are considered unsafe and academically deficient.

"We are not simply just giving support to a school, we are giving support to a neighborhood and the families who call this parish and its school home," board chairman Jack Donnelly said.

Church officials, who have shuttered more than 30 cash-strapped schools in the archdiocese over the past five years, applauded the agreement. Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Senior said at Tuesday's ceremonial signing event that he hopes it can be replicated at other strained schools.

Similar arrangements have saved parochial schools in other U.S. cities. Catholic education nationwide has suffered for years from the double whammy of rising costs and dwindling enrollment, forcing tuition hikes that make the schools increasingly unaffordable. Shifting demographics and the rise of charter schools also have siphoned off students.

The archdiocese has 178 schools serving about 68,000 students, which represents a 35 percent drop in enrollment since 2001.

____

Religious leaders, voters weigh in on Virginia gay-adoption rules

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) _ Hundreds of opponents and supporters weighed in on proposed regulations that would allow state-licensed groups to turn down prospective adoptive and foster parents because of their sexual orientation.

The Virginia Board of Social Services opened a 30-day public comment period last month after gay-rights advocates complained about new regulations that were approved in April that didn't bar discrimination based on sexual orientation, political beliefs, age, physical disability and family status. Critics said the board stripped the protections from the proposed regulations without much public notice, and that the board discussed the issue in closed session without opportunity for public consideration.

Equality Virginia, the ACLU and other groups say the state should restore the protections, Roman Catholic and other church leaders say organizations say they should not be forced to violate their religious beliefs.

Virginia allows married couples and single people to adopt or become foster parents, regardless of sexual orientation, but bars unmarried couples _ gay or straight _ from doing so. Then-Gov. Timothy Kaine's Democratic administration added the anti-discrimination provision in 2009, but it didn't become a flashpoint for public debate until this year, when conservative legislators and groups complained.

The agency staff will give the board a summary of the comments after the comment period ends.

____

Catholic school offers to buy land that judge has blocked city of South Bend from donating

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) _ A Roman Catholic high school has offered $350,000 to buy property that a federal judge has blocked the city of South Bend from giving to the school for an athletic field.

Last June, City officials had approved spending $1.2 million to buy the former Family Dollar store site and transfer it to a new St. Joseph's High School under construction east of the city's downtown.

The American Civil Liberties Union argued that the deal would give substantial aid to a religious institution in violation of the First Amendment.

The school was the only bidder by the city's Monday deadline.

Mayor Stephen Luecke said lawyers are reviewing the offer and whether a price below the $1.2 million paid by the city equals a gift.

____

Church from 1860 with few remaining members to close near the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) _ A more than 150-year-old church one block from the Ohio Statehouse will soon close because its congregation is shrinking.

The last service at Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Columbus is planned for Nov. 20.

Church leadership council member Linda Wood said the church has only about 40 active members, making it difficult to pay the bills.

The congregation was founded in 1839, and the church was dedicated in 1860. The Columbus Metropolitan Library website says the church has a stained glass window that was displayed first at a Chicago world's fair, where it won an award.

A lawyer overseeing the closing says the plan is to sell the church, possibly to a buyer who will turn it into a performance space.