Religion News in Brief

AP News
Posted: Dec 16, 2009 2:07 PM

President Barack Obama's address to the Muslim world last June was chosen as the top religion story of 2009 in a survey of journalists who cover the beat.

Obama extended a hand to the Islamic world in a speech in Cairo while quoting from the Quran, the Gospel of Matthew and the Talmud, the collection of Jewish law.

"So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity," Obama said in the speech. "And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end."

The survey of more than 100 journalists was conducted by the Religion Newswriters Association. The No. 2 religion story was the government health care overhaul and the role the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other faith groups played in the debate.

The third-ranking story involved the religious implications of the mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas. The accused gunman, Maj. Nidal Hasan, was considered a devout Muslim, which again raised questions about violence, terrorism and Islam. Some Muslims feared a backlash.

The top newsmaker of the year was Rick Warren, the California evangelical megachurch pastor and author.

Warren gained attention with his Inauguration Day invocation and comments in the aftermath of California's Proposition 8, which overturned gay marriage. Warren also gained attention for his work in Africa involving AIDS relief and other humanitarian activities.



Judge rules that winter display featuring Einstein, Bill Gates can go up at Ark. Capitol

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) _ A secular display celebrating the winter solstice and "freethinkers" such as Albert Einstein and Bill Gates can be placed at the state Capitol alongside a traditional Christian nativity scene, a federal judge says.

The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers sued after Secretary of State Charlie Daniels rejected its proposal, saying it wasn't consistent with the Capitol's other decorations and displays. The group asked for a quick hearing before the winter solstice, which is Dec. 21.

U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright granted an injunction Monday allowing the display to go up.

The group never wanted to remove the nativity display, said Tod Billings, president of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. Billings said he hoped the display would go up Wednesday and that it would remain until the nativity scene came down after the holidays.

"We just wanted the freedom to be included in the holiday celebrations publicly, just like anybody else can do if they fill out the appropriate paperwork," Billings said.

Natasha Naragon, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state's office, said that they respected the judge's decision and that they'll work with the group to erect the display.


Challenge to Fla. prison religious aid reinstated

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ A humanist group can go ahead with its challenge against the Florida prison system's use of two faith-based organizations to provide substance abuse programs for inmates, a state appeal court ruled.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled the "no-aid" provision of the Florida Constitution prohibits spending taxpayer money on programs that use religious doctrine to carry out their work for the state.

The unanimous decision sends the lawsuit back to a trial judge to determine if the programs violate that ban. It was filed by the Council for Secular Humanism and two of its Tallahassee members, Richard and Elaine Hull.

Circuit Judge John C. Cooper of Tallahassee had rejected the challenge without taking any factual evidence. The appeal court found Cooper erred when he ruled that a similar 1st District decision in 2004 had applied only to schools.

"It is only after the facts are developed with respect to the purpose and effect of the faith-based programs which are the subject of this action that these arguments can be addressed definitively," District Judge William Van Nortwick wrote for the appeal court.

The district court refused to reinstate two other allegations in the lawsuit relating to the contracts themselves and a requirement for consultation with prison chaplains before inmates can participate in the programs.

Ryan Wiggins, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said the agency will review the ruling and confer with the Department of Corrections before deciding whether to appeal or take other legal steps.


Catholic officials seeking charter status for church schools in Indianapolis

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Catholic Church officials have applied to convert two inner-city Indianapolis elementary schools into taxpayer-supported charter schools, which would mean giving up their religious identities and education classes.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has subsidized St. Andrew & St. Rita Catholic Academy and St. Anthony School for years because low-income families sending children to the schools couldn't afford much tuition, church officials said.

A plan submitted to the city calls for a nonprofit organization to run the schools, which could receive more than $1 million in state funding in the first year. If city officials agreed, the charter schools would open next fall.

The nonprofit organization formed by the archdiocese to run the charter schools would have to ensure they had have a secular curriculum.

"We will always be about values-based education," Connie Zittnan, the current director of the schools, told The Indianapolis Star. "What we will not be able to do is to bring those values with a direct discussion of God."

Church officials intend to offer before- and after-school religious education programs to students on a voluntary basis. But crucifixes and religious statues will have to be removed from classrooms and hallways or be covered up.