Subject: NCC Weekly News: Religious Freedom (Part 2 of 2)

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From Jim: The Meaning and Importance of Religious Freedom (part 2 of 2)
(continued from last week:)

The US Congress created some years ago the US Commission on International Religious Freedom which is comprised of people appointed by the president, the speaker of the house, the majority leader of the Senate, and the minority leaders of both houses. USCIRF, as it is known, was recently reauthorized for four more years, although some of us unsuccessfully supported reforms that would have strengthened the bipartisan structure of the commission and encouraged better coordination between it and the State Department.

I’m not a specialist on religious liberty. I agree with Brent Walker, the retiring head of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, who says, “The separation principles is simply another way of saying government should not try to help or hurt religion, but it should leave religion alone…In short, government must be neutral towards religion.”

But our freedom to worship God or not does not permit employers to refuse to offer health care plans that deny birth control to employees because they feel offended. It does not permit storeowners to refuse to sell wedding cakes to gay couples because they don’t like LGBTQ people. It does not give farmers the right to sell unpasteurized milk because it somehow contravenes their faith. Things have been turned on their head. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks by leg.”

Not only are people, churches, businesses, and organizations claiming their own religious liberty is jeopardized if, for example, women have access to birth control, they are suggesting their religious liberty has been compromised if the government will not use taxpayer money belonging to all of us to fund their projects.

A church in Columbia, Missouri challenged a state decision denying a grant to its preschool which sought to replace the gravel on its playground with softer, safer material. The Missouri Attorney General says the state constitution expressly prevents tax dollars from being used to aid religious groups. The case is going to the Supreme Court.

“They’re just kids,” says a church representative. But, if government tax money goes to help the church’s playground, why shouldn’t it be spent to fix the roof and otherwise generally help make the building safer?

“The issue is not whether the playground surface is inherently religious, but it’s whether the state government must fund an upgrade to a church playground despite a state constitutional ban on funding churches,” BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman said.

BJC Executive Director Brent Walker said the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment simply does not permit outright government funding or grants to churches and other houses of worship. “We do not look to government subsidies to build houses of worship; we should not fund capital improvements that way either,” Walker said.

Your religious freedom is not limited because the government won’t fund your church playground. It’s limited when the government tries to stop the preacher from delivering a sermon in the church or in a public space designated as an open forum.

When President Bush announced his faith-based initiative, the point was made that religious institutions had been discriminated against in terms of receiving government grants. I’m not so sure that was accurate. Organizations like Church World Service and Catholic Relief Services receive millions of dollars of government money.

Quite a brouhaha erupted about what Bush was trying to do. I spoke in a number of United Methodist Church settings about it at the time and made the point that we needed to separate government money and tax funds -- public money, that is -- and church money. Public funds are for the benefit of everyone and you can’t, or shouldn’t, use tax money to push the agenda or teachings of your faith.

Now, if you want to apply for government money to run a homeless shelter or to build affordable housing or to run some kind of program, then simply set up a separate corporation and don’t mix church money and public funds. Otherwise, you may see on the nightly TV news footage of government agents walking out of your church carrying boxes of documents and your computers because they’re investigating whether you misused money that belongs to all of us—Mormons, Muslims, Methodists, and others. That money is different.

If you receive government money to help you run your hospitals or universities or relief agencies, then you have to abide by rules that apply to everyone. You can’t set the rules; neither can you whine about your liberty being infringed upon.

Bob Jones University used to ban black students. When they did accept them, they banned interracial dating. As a result, they lost their tax exempt status. The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution arguing that the action violated churches’ constitutional right to operate without government interference, but Bob Jones lost, as well they should.

When I was a boy, we Protestants used to oppose the use of taxpayer money to assist Catholic parochial schools. Our argument was that if you wish to have your own schools, that’s OK, but you have to bear the expense. Tax money supports what the religious right now calls ‘government’ schools. We call them public schools.

Then came Brown v. the Board of Education, and many a white Southerner withdrew their children from public or ‘government’ schools in favor of newly created ‘Christian academies’, which were really just schools for white kids. Suddenly, these former anti-Catholics saw the virtue of seeking taxpayer money to support their private schools. And they argued that if they didn't get public funding, it’s a form of religious persecution against them.

Now they want public money while they teach their version of the faith and reserve the right to fire teachers who get divorced, who are gay or support gay rights, or who get pregnant outside marriage.

Meanwhile, some are arguing that the Johnson Amendment of 1954 is unconstitutional. That’s the law which provides churches and other nonprofit organizations with tax exempt status as long as they stay out of electoral politics. Mostly, it is the religious right that is making this argument. They want to retain their lucrative tax exempt status, which they receive because they are viewed as providing a public good while not seeking political power.

Battles over the Affordable Care Act, religious involvement in political campaigns, funding for church programs and charities, questions over zoning, same-sex marriage and LGBTQ issues, persecution due to religious identity, hate crimes, and numerous other issues promise to keep religious liberty in the forefront for many years to come.

There is no certainty our nation will continue to enjoy religious liberty without the commitment of all of us. 
Yours in Christ,

Jim Winkler
President and General Secretary

NCC Denounces Israel’s Deportation of Christian Leader

The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA denounces the detention, interrogation, and deportation of Dr. Isabel Phiri, Associate General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, at Ben Gurion Airport by the Israeli government. Dr. Phiri was part of a high-level World Council of Churches delegation to the Holy Land, and the only member of the delegation denied entry.

It is noteworthy that Dr. Phiri, a citizen of Malawi who resides and works in Geneva, Switzerland, was the only African member of the WCC delegation. Not only do we insist the Israeli government invite Dr. Phiri to rejoin the delegation, we also call on them to investigate this racially discriminatory action and ensure it will not take place again.

The alleged grounds cited for denying her entry into Israel were entirely specious. The World Council of Churches is clear in its call “for equal justice for both Israelis and Palestinians,” and yet the Israeli government accused the WCC of being part of an activist, anti-Israel agenda. The World Council of Churches has an established policy affirming the consideration of non-violent economic measures in response to the illegal Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Peace for Israel and Palestine cannot be achieved without dialogue. The exclusion of Christian leaders diminishes this possibility. We are especially concerned about restriction of Christian access to the land of our faith, our history, and the Christian communities who live there. The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA continues to work and pray for a safe, secure, and peaceful solution for both Israelis and Palestinians.

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NCC and Creation Justice Ministries applaud developments at Standing Rock

The National Council of Churches of the Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC) and Creation Justice Ministries join in expressing their deep appreciation to President Obama and the Army Corps of Engineers for the historic decision to not grant an easement for the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) through the contested site in Standing Rock, North Dakota.

As previously planned, the DAPL would have transversed sovereign Sioux land considered by the Sioux to be sacred, and has already damaged tribal burial grounds. DAPL would have been placed underneath the Missouri River, potentially polluting drinking water and endangering the health of millions downstream.

Creation Justice Ministries Executive Director Shantha Ready Alonso said of the decision, “We are grateful to the Administration for this decision. The belief system that a company can take over indigenous land for profit can be traced back to the Doctrine of Discovery — 15th century papal teachings which have historically been used to justify land theft, colonization, and genocide. Standing with the Standing Rock Sioux to defend their sacred land has been an important step by Christians to reject the Doctrine of Discovery and to rectify injustice. As Christians, we have a moral responsibility to stand with indigenous peoples to protect their sovereignty, and God’s creation.”

On Human Rights Day, December 10, write to Wendy’s CEO Todd Penegor!

As the basic human rights of so many are being challenged across the country, it is now more important than ever that we protect the human rights gains we’ve won and struggle together to push them forward. And as the year comes to a close, allies across the Fair Food Nation will take a stand on Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, by sending letters to Wendy’s CEO Todd Penegor to call on him to bring the final fast food holdout into the Fair Food Program.

The Fair Food movement is fundamentally a human rights movement, broad and inclusive of immigrant rights, labor rights, women’s rights, and even consumer rights. Indeed, this is the right to demand that, in the 21st century, food corporations no longer turn a blind eye to abuses in their supply chains, but use the power of the market to help fix the poverty and exploitation that their purchasing policies have driven for so long.

Wendy’s refusal to join the Fair Food Program-- called “one of the great human rights success stories of our day” in the Washington Post for its achievements in transforming the U.S. agricultural industry -- continues to pose one of the largest threats to the protection and expansion of basic rights for thousands of farmworkers. Wendy's recent response to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, published on their Corporate Social Responsibility blog in October, misconstrues completely the function of the Fair Food Program and worse, extolls their decision to purchase from farms in Mexico where there have been well-documented human rights abuses.

So this Human Rights Day, Saturday Dec. 10, take action by writing a letter to Wendy’s CEO Todd Penegor calling on him to bring the final fast food holdout to the table and into the Fair Food Program.

Religious leaders celebrate denial of easement for Dakota Access pipeline

Native American and other religious leaders called the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision to deny an easement for the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline an answer to prayer.

As many as 8,000 people at one time have gathered in camps in the hills along the Cannonball River in North Dakota to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in a spiritual movement protesting the construction of the pipeline.

Their rallying cry has been “Mni wiconi” (Lakota, meaning “water is life”) as they have maintained the pipeline’s planned river crossing upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation posed a risk to its water supply. It also would have crossed through lands considered sacred by the Sioux.

“Throughout this effort I have stressed the importance of acting at all times in a peaceful and prayerful manner – and that is how we will respond to this decision,” said Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II in a statement about the Sunday (Dec. 4) decision.

“With this decision we look forward to being able to return home and spend the winter with our families and loved ones, many of whom have sacrificed as well. We look forward to celebrating in wopila, in thanks, in the coming days.”

Standing Rock water protectors celebrate victory, stay vigilant

After celebrating a historic decision on Sunday by the Army Corps of Engineers that blocks the builders of Dakota Access Pipeline from running pipe to carry fracked oil under the Missouri River, the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and their allies are staying the course in an effort to stop the project from further impacting their sacred lands and water sources.

The Army, which owns the land on each side of the river, announced on Dec. 3 it will deny an easement to Energy Transfer Partners, blocking construction under the water, instead calling for an environmental impact statement to look at possible alternative routes.

"I'm still on the verge of tears each time I think of all the sacrifices people made to stay up at Standing Rock," said Toni Buffalo, a member of the UCC Dakota Association and one of the denomination's leaders in the Lakota community. Buffalo was in the Water Protectors camp near the reservation when the Army decision not to grant the permit was announced. "Although I'm happy [the easement was denied], we aren't naive to believe it's over. So after a day of joyous celebration last night, today we have to get ready for the next step. Already DAPL has issued a statement saying what was done last night won't deter them. No war is won with one victory in battle."

The Tribe and their allies remain committed to waging the battle along several fronts. In the camps around the construction site, thousands of people, including citizens from 300 Native American Nations, remain gathered in a prayerful and peaceful community. Three thousand veterans joined advocates this weekend to stand with them against future construction.

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