U.S. Supreme Court rules for cross-shaped war memorial on public land in Maryland

A concrete cross commemorating servicemen killed in World War One, that is the subject of a religious rights case now before the U.S. Supreme Court, is seen in Bladensburg, Maryland, U.S., February 11, 2019. Picture taken on February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Lawrence Hurley

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A 40-foot-tall (12 meters) cross-shaped war memorial standing on public land in Maryland does not represent an impermissible government endorsement of religion, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday in a major decision testing the boundaries of the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

The justices, in a 7-2 decision, overturned a lower court ruling that had declared the so-called Peace Cross in Bladensburg unconstitutional in a legal challenge mounted by the American Humanist Association, a group that advocates for secular governance. The concrete cross was erected in 1925 as a memorial to troops killed in World War One.

The challengers had argued that the cross violated the Constitution’s so-called Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion and bars governmental actions favoring one religion over another.

The American Humanist Association did not immediately comment on the ruling.

The fractured decision saw two of the court’s liberals, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Elena Kagan, joining the five conservatives in parts of the majority. The ruling made it clear that such a monument in the shape of a Christian cross on public land was permissible but the justices seemed divided over whether other types of religious displays and symbols on government property would be allowed.

Justice Samuel Alito, a conservative, wrote for the majority that although the cross is a religious symbol, “its use in the Bladensburg memorial has special significance” because it functions as a war memorial.

“For nearly a century, the Bladensburg cross has expressed the community’s grief at the loss of the young men who perished, its thanks for their sacrifices, and its dedication to the ideals for which they fought,” he added.

To tear the cross down now could be seen as an act of hostility against religion, Alito said.

Where the justices differ is on what kinds of other displays, including ones built more recently, would violate the Constitution.

“A newer memorial, erected under different circumstances, would not necessarily be permissible under this approach,” Breyer wrote in a concurring opinion.

Liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

The Peace Cross was funded privately and built to honor 49 men from Maryland’s Prince George’s County killed in World War One. The property was in private hands when the cross was erected, but is now on land owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a governmental agency.

The cross had the backing of Republican President Donald Trump’s administration. The American Legion holds memorial events at the site. Veterans and their relatives have said the monument has no religious meaning despite being in the shape of a cross, calling the lawsuit misguided and hurtful.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; editing by Will Dunham and Grant McCool)

Saudi Arabia hosts rare visit of U.S. evangelical Christian figures

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmanin meets with the delegation of American Evangelical Christian Leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia November 1, 2018. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman held a rare meeting with American evangelical Christians on Thursday, as the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom seeks to open up more to the world and repair an image of religious intolerance.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmanin meets with the delegation of American Evangelical Christian Leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia November 1, 2018. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmanin meets with the delegation of American Evangelical Christian Leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia November 1, 2018. Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

The delegation was led by communications strategist Joel Rosenberg and included former U.S. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, according to an emailed statement by the group, as well as heads of American evangelical organizations, some with ties to Israel.

“It was a historic moment for the Saudi Crown Prince to openly welcome Evangelical Christian leaders to the Palace. We were encouraged by the candor of the two-hour conversation with him today,” the statement said.

The delegation also met Saudi officials including Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Ambassador to Washington Prince Khalid bin Salman, and secretary-general of the Muslim World League Mohammed al-Issa.

A visit by such prominent non-Muslim leaders, who estimate they represent about 60 million people, is a rare act of religious openness for Saudi Arabia, which hosts the holiest sites in Islam and bans the practice of other religions.

Some of the figures’ support for Israel, which the kingdom does not recognize, is also striking. For instance, Mike Evans, founder of the Jerusalem Prayer Team, describes himself on his website as “a devout American-Christian Zionist leader”.

Saudi Arabia has maintained for years that normalizing relations with Israel hinges on its withdrawal from Arab lands captured in the 1967 Middle East war – territory Palestinians seek for a future state.

But increased tension between Tehran and Riyadh has fueled speculation that shared interests may push Saudi Arabia and Israel to work together against what they regard as a common Iranian threat.

Prince Mohammed, who in recent years has loosened strict social rules and arrested Saudi clerics deemed extremists, said in April that Israelis are entitled to live peacefully on their own land. A month earlier, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace for the first time to a commercial flight to Israel.

Several members of the delegation, which met with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in the United Arab Emirates earlier in the week, have also advised U.S. President Donald Trump on faith issues.

(Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Wolves to lambs: Finding God behind bars in El Salvador

Members of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) evangelical church participate in a religious service at the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. Former members of the Barrio 18 gang abandoned their gang and decided to form two churches in order to leave their violent past. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

By Jose Cabezas and Nelson Renteria

SAN FRANCISCO GOTERA, El Salvador (Reuters) – Pastor Manuel Rivera’s voice echoes through the crowded courtyard in the notorious San Francisco Gotera prison in El Salvador, as hardened criminals weep and bow their heads in prayer.

Brutal ‘mara’ street gangs and chronic poverty have made El Salvador one of the most murderous countries on the planet, but the growth of evangelical Christianity behind bars is giving gangsters a way to break the spiral of violence.

Rivera, an ex-hitman from the powerful Barrio 18 gang, speaks to rows of men with spidery black tattoos on their arms, necks and faces, delivering a message of salvation: God had rescued them from violence. Returning to gang life would mean death.

“We used to say that the gang was our family, but God took the blindfold off our eyes,” says Rivera, 36, dressed like the other inmates in a white t-shirt, shorts and plastic sandals.

Some weep silently while he reads from a black bible. Others sing hymns, clapping and waving arms enthusiastically. They chorus: “Amen.”

Former members of the Barrio 18 gang participate in a religious service of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) church inside the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Former members of the Barrio 18 gang participate in a religious service of the Torre Fuerte (Strong Tower) church inside the San Francisco Gotera prison, in San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador, March 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

By embracing religion, these men can leave their gangs without retaliation, Rivera says. But if they do not show real devotion, their former gang-mates may kill them, fearing they will join other gangs and become enemies.

Convicted murderer Rivera’s own transformation came behind bars, when, battered by years of running from police and enemy gangs, unable to see his son, he turned to prayer.

When God appeared in a dream, prophesying Rivera would have his own flock, he became a pastor, he says. He is now half-way through an eight-year sentence for criminal association.

Evangelical Christianity has grown rapidly in Central America in the past decade, coloring local politics. Dozens of lawmakers embrace it, defending hardline positions against gay rights and abortion.

The fervor has spilled into jails, where it is welcomed by officials who sense its potential for reforming ex-gangsters.

President Salvador Sanchez Ceren’s government plans to use Gotera as a model of religious rehabilitation it hopes can be replicated.

Two years ago the prison, located about 100 miles (166 km) east of capital San Salvador, was almost entirely home to active gang members. Now, the majority of its approximately 1,500 inmates want to find redemption, says prison director Oscar Benavides.

The conversions “show the country that it is possible to rehabilitate those in the Mara Salvatrucha or other gangs,” says Security Minister Mauricio Ramirez, dismissing criticisms that the government should do more.

The Mara Salvatrucha, a notorious cross-border crime group also known as MS-13, was founded by Salvadorans in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

President Donald Trump has blamed MS-13 and illegal immigration from Central America as a major source of violence in the United States.

Outside the relative tranquility of the prison, danger permeates the streets of El Salvador.

Crime has fallen from a record high in 2015, but at 60 per 100,000 inhabitants last year, the murder rate is still one of the highest worldwide.

Inside Gotera, where some inmates are serving 100-year sentences for accumulated crimes, colorful drawings of angels and prophets decorate the walls alongside biblical quotations.

Inmates wearing shirts emblazoned with “Soldier of Christ” and “Jesus Saved My Life” study prayer books, weave hammocks and tend to a garden.

Rodolfo Cornejo, 34, with intricate black tattoos circling his neck, started praying and growing cucumbers when he entered the prison on a 12-year sentence for carrying firearms, wanting to leave the rough life that had isolated him from his kids.

“People on the outside don’t trust us very much: they think we can’t change. But yes, we can show them.”

Click on https://reut.rs/2HJg8kN to see a related photo essay.

(Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Rosalba O’Brien)

Trump signs order to ease ban on political activity by churches

U.S. President Donald Trump signs an Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington D.C., U.S., May 4, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an executive order on religious liberties designed to ease a ban on political activity by churches and other tax-exempt institutions.

The order also mandates regulatory relief to religious employers that object to contraception, such as Little Sisters of the Poor.

It does not include provisions to allow government agencies and businesses to deny services to gay people in the name of religious freedom, as was feared by some civil liberties and gay rights groups.

The American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement it would file a lawsuit challenging Trump’s order.

Trump, addressing religious leaders in a signing ceremony at the White House, said: “We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced any more”.

“No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors,” he said.

Trump’s order directs the Internal Revenue Service to “alleviate the burden of the Johnson Amendment,” the White House said in reference to a 1954 law sponsored by Lyndon Johnson, then a Texas senator who later became president.

Under the tax code, organizations that enjoy tax-free status, such as churches, are prohibited from participating in a political campaign or supporting any one candidate for elective office.

This includes a ban on making financial contributions to campaigns and candidates, but the law does allow certain non-partisan political activity such as voter registration or get-out-the-vote drives.

Trump would need Congress to rescind the Johnson Amendment, but he can instruct his administration not to enforce it through executive order.

(Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Susan Heavey and James Dalgleish)

Congress remains overwhelmingly Christian as U.S. shifts

U.S. President Barack Obama (L-R), House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) bow their heads in prayer at the end of a ceremony commemorating the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, which formally abolished slavery in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington

By Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress taking office on Tuesday remains almost as overwhelmingly Christian as it was in the 1960s even while the share of American adults who call themselves Christians has dropped, according to Pew Research Center analysis.

A report from the nonpartisan group said that 91 percent of lawmakers in the Republican-dominated 115th Congress described themselves as Christians, down slightly from 95 percent in the 87th Congress in 1961 and 1962, the earliest years for comparable data.

By contrast, the portion of American adults who call themselves Christian fell to 71 percent in 2014, the Pew report said. While Pew did not have numbers for the early 1960s, a Gallup survey from that time found that 93 percent of Americans described themselves as Christian.

“The most interesting thing is how little Congress has changed over the past several decades, especially in comparison with the general public,” Aleksandra Sandstrom, the report’s lead author, said in a telephone interview.

The biggest gap between Congress and other Americans was among those who said they have no religion. Only one lawmaker, Democratic Representative Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, called herself religiously unaffiliated. The Pew survey found that 23 percent of Americans described themselves the same way.

The percentage of Americans who have no religion has grown, but the portion of voters who said in exit polls that they have no religion is lower than the share of the general public, said Greg Smith, a Pew expert on the U.S. religious landscape.

“The political power of that group might lag their growth in the overall population,” he said.

Among the 293 Republicans elected to the new Congress, all but two identify as Christians. The two Jewish Republicans – Lee Zeldin of New York and David Kustoff of Tennessee – serve in the House.

The 242 Democrats in Congress are 80 percent Christian, but that side of the aisle includes 28 Jews, three Buddhists, three Hindus, two Muslims and one Unitarian Universalist.

The share of Protestants in Congress has dropped to 56 percent today from 75 percent in 1961, while the portion of Catholics in Congress has risen to 31 percent from 19 percent.

The U.S. population in 2014 was 46.5 percent Protestant and 21 percent Catholic, the Pew survey showed.

The survey was based on data gathered by CQ Roll Call through questionnaires and phone calls to members of congress and candidates’ offices.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool)

Virginia School District Closes Over Backlash from Islamic Homework Assignment

Schools in one Virginia county were closed Friday after a controversial homework assignment, in which students were reportedly asked to copy the Islamic statement of faith, drew backlash.

In a statement posted on the Augusta County Public Schools website, the district announced that schools would be closed Friday after “parental objections to the World Geography curriculum and ensuing related media coverage” spurred a bombardment of phone calls and emails.

The district said those messages “significantly increased in volume” Thursday and they were concerned about their “tone and content.” The district made the decision to close the schools “out of an abundance of caution,” though said there was “no specific threat of harm to students.”

The district didn’t offer details about what specific assignment prompted the backlash, but multiple media outlets reported that students at Riverheads High School were asked to practice drawing calligraphy by copying down the shahada, which is the Islamic statement of faith.

CNN published a copy of the assignment, which notes calligraphy’s importance in Islam. It shows the shahada written in Arabic calligraphy and instructs students to copy it into a box. “This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy,” the assignment reads.

One of the most common objections to the assignment is that the shahada, when translated into English, reads “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”

The News-Leader, a Virginia newspaper, reported that more than 100 people “met in fury” over the assignment, and some parents had called for the teacher who gave it to be fired. But the state Department of Education and the district’s superintendent both reviewed the assignment and determined it wasn’t a violation of students’ rights, and deemed it in line with state standards.

As of Friday afternoon, 2,500 members had joined a Facebook group to support the teacher. Still, some parents weren’t happy about the message the students were asked to copy.

“I will not have my children sit under a woman who indoctrinates them with the Islam religion when I am a Christian, and I’m going to stand behind Christ,” Kimberly Herndon told Virginia television station WHSV. The news station identified her as a parent of a Riverheads student.

The News-Leader reported that the teacher didn’t come up with the assignment, but rather pulled it out of a workbook about world religions. The newspaper also reported that students had learned about other religions in the teacher’s class, including Christianity and Judaism.

In its website posting, Augusta County Public Schools said “no lesson was designed to promote a viewpoint or change any student’s religious belief.” School officials said that their students will keep learning about world religions, which is required by state education officials, but a new, non-religious calligraphy sample will be used in future homework assignments about Islam.

Before making the decision to close, the district said it increased police presence at its schools.

Police Investigating Chapel Hill Shooting as Possible Hate Crime

Is it a hate crime or not?

That’s the question being investigated by the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office after a 46-year-old man gunned down three Muslim students near the campus of the University of North Carolina Tuesday.

Craig Hicks turned himself into police after the execution style killings of Deah Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, 21 and Abu-Salha’s sister Razan.  Barakat was a student at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry.

Hicks claims that he shot the three because of a dispute over parking arrangements in their condominium complex.  However, many residents claim that Hicks was a violent, angry atheist that openly spoke out about his hate toward all faiths.

Hicks has a social media account where he shared his love of Richard Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion”, said he was a supporter of “Atheists for Equality” and spoke of the commonality between Muslims and Christians.

“Of course I want religion to go away,” his Facebook cover reads. “I don’t deny you your right to believe whatever you’d like, but I have the right to point out it’s ignorant and dangerous for as long as your baseless superstitions keep killing people.”

Police said initial indications were the shooting was related to the parking problem but were open to it being more.

“Our investigators are exploring what could have motivated Mr. Hicks to commit such a senseless and tragic act,” Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue said in a statement. “We understand the concerns about the possibility that this was hate-motivated and we will exhaust every lead to determine if that is the case.”

Court Rules “Secular Humanism” A Religion

A judge in Oregon says that “secular humanism” can be considered a religion and be afforded all the protections under the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

This means that atheism is essentially a religion according to the government.

Judge Ancer Haggerty, a Clinton-appointed judge, ruled in favor of an atheist inmate who had sued after prison officials denied him the chance to form a study group on humanism.  The Federal Bureau of Prisons said that atheism and secular humanism were not religions under prison classifications.

“The court finds that Secular Humanism is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes,” Judge Haggerty wrote in his ruling last Thursday. “Allowing followers of other faiths to join religious group meetings while denying Holden the same privilege is discrimination on the basis of religion.”

The anti-Christian organization American Humanist Association had co-filed the case with the prisoner because they want to be given special treatment for their non-religious belief system.

Top States for Religiosity Hold Steady

The top two made it back-to-back-to-back.

Mississippi and Utah finished first and second for the third consecutive year in Gallup’s annual survey of the most religious states in the United States.  The survey has been conducted annually since 2008.

Vermont and its neighboring New England states continue to rank near the bottom.

Mississippi reported that 61 percent of residents classified themselves as “very religious” meaning they consider religion to be an important part of their lives.  They also attend a worship service at least once a week, many more than once.  Utah is close behind with 60 percent.  Alabama was third followed by Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.

Vermont was the least religious with 22 percent of residents saying they were “very religious.”  Vermont was followed by New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and western state Oregon.

The poll showed the number of “very religious” Americans was up slightly at 41.4 percent while the number of “nonreligious” fell to 29.4, the lowest of any previous survey.

High School Takes Students To Mosque, Allows Them To Receive Koran

A Tennessee high school has taken a group of students to a mosque where some were given free copies of the Koran. A student who opted out of the trip was given a worksheet that said Muslims treat conquered people better than the United States treat minorities.

Hendersonville High School honors world studies students were taken to the mosque and a Hindu temple but a visit to a Christian church or Jewish temple was not included in the curriculum.

The principal of the school told a parent they could not afford to visit all five according to a report by FoxNews’ Todd Starnes. Continue reading