RFRA Clones Stall in Congress, Several States
by Tom Flynn
Bills designed to curb government power over religion have stalled in Congress and in
four of seven states. The Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA) failed to attain
congressional "fast track" status and remains in the Senate and House Judiciary
committees. Similar bills died in the Maryland and New Jersey legislatures; in Illinois
and California, they fell to gubernatorial vetoes. In each case these initially popular
bills lost support as concerns mounted about potential legal fallout. For example,
California Governor Pete Wilson vetoed the California Religious Freedom Protection Act in
part because of prison administrators' fears that the bill would trigger a torrent of
frivolous lawsuits by prisoners. Earlier, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Florida rapidly
enacted similar legislation.
These bills mark legislators' latest efforts to nullify a controversial 1990 Supreme
Court decision, Employment Division v. Smith. Smith reversed the historic
principle that government action should burden religion only in response to a compelling
interest. The previous attempt to restore the "compelling interest" standard,
1993's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), was overturned by the Supreme Court in Boerne
v. Flores (1997). A proposed Religious Freedom Amendment died last spring after
failing to garner a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives.
Church-state activists are divided over RFRA/RLPA. Some, including the
So far, the "special rights" objection has not figured prominently in the
rhetoric of RFRA/RLPA opponents. Through its new First Amendment Task Force, the
Council for Secular Humanism hopes to encourage legislative
responses to Smith that emphasize freedom of conscience in preference to more
narrowly defined freedom of religion.
When the Government Pays (Religious) Helping Hands
by Rob Boston
A quiet revolution is under way in the delivery of social services in America. Thanks
largely to the efforts of one man, U.S. Senator John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), a Religious Right
favorite and aspiring presidential candidate, government money is for the first time
underwriting social service programs provided by religious organizations with virtually no
significant oversight or strings attached.
Ashcroft calls his scheme "charitable choice." He and his supporters argue
that religious organizations do a better job of providing social services than government,
and thus they should not be burdened with government regulations. The concept has already
been written into the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, and Ashcroft recently introduced
legislation that would ensure that the charitable choice principle applies to every
federally funded social service and public health program—legislation that could affect
areas such as youth development, services for the elderly, substance abuse treatment, and
The irony is, charitable choice is a remedy to a problem that doesn't exist. Religious
groups have been receiving government money to run services for the poor and needy for a
long time. Catholic Charities, for
example, receives nearly 70% of its budget from government sources. But groups like
Catholic Charities, Lutheran Services in America, and Jewish relief agencies often had to
set up separate corporations to administer government-funded programs. They were not
permitted to discriminate on the basis of religion when serving the public or hiring
staff. They were expected to run secular programs. Most religious organizations were
willing to play by these rules.
Why then the change? Ashcroft is a fundamentalist Christian who embraces a literal
interpretation of the Bible. But something more nefarious may be afoot as well.
Fundamentalist Christian denominations have long been wary of accepting government aid for
their social service ministries over worries that they would then be required to tone down
their aggressive proselytism. Now, thanks to charitable choice, they don't have to.
Proponents of charitable choice argue this will not happen because, on paper at least,
the law says no one will be forced to go to a religious provider for help. But does anyone
really expect a panoply of providers in rural areas or small towns? It's more likely that
those in need will simply be shuttled off to the local Baptist church or whatever
denomination has agreed to run a program. And, given the lack of significant monitoring
provisions in the bill, it's unlikely a government agent is going to make sure individual
church programs are free of religious coercion.
Also, since charitable choice permits commingling of government and privately raised
funds, it would be easy for religious groups to argue that any proselytism in their
programs is paid for with voluntary contributions. Finally, people in need are unlikely to
know every jot and tittle in the law, and even if they do, they are unlikely to quibble. A
hungry person who is told to watch a religious video is likely to do it if he or she has
been told there's a meal waiting at the end.
Attorneys with Americans United for Separation of Church
and State are studying the issue and gathering evidence for a possible lawsuit. They
caution, however, that the Supreme Court has been wavering on the issue of government
funding for religion and in recent decisions seems to be leaning toward the idea that
state financial support for religion is permissible as long as secular services are funded
But the scale of abuses possible under charitable choice is so enormous that litigation
seems inevitable. In the meantime, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars will likely
end up in the coffers of houses of worship, with virtually no controls to ensure they are
not spent to promote religion.
Stop the Presses - The Pope Cracks Down on Dissident Catholics
by Tim Madigan
Pope John Paul II has made it clear that liberal Catholic theologians who deviate from
official Church teachings will no longer be tolerated. He has declared that any break from
the "revealed truth" regarding euthanasia, sex outside marriage, and the
ordination of women will be met with strict punishment, ranging from a warning to
Many American Catholic theologians have reacted with surprise to this sudden
pronouncement. "They're trying to create a kind of chilling climate to shut people
up" said Father Charles Curran, who was himself denied the right to teach by the
Vatican because of his controversial writings on birth control, homosexuality, and
abortion. But this policy is in keeping with John Paul's highly orthodox style during his
entire papacy. To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of assuming the papal throne, the
pope also issued his thirteenth encyclical, entitled "Fides et Ratio"
("Faith and Reason"). A criticism of postmodernist critiques of rationality,
John Paul urges all priests and bishops to become more philosophical and "search for
the ultimate and overarching meaning of life." Yet his earlier order to quell
independent thinking within the church is anathema to the very meaning of
"philosophy" - the love of wisdom through the search for truth.
by Andrea Szalanski
Pope John Paul II has beatified 805 people and canonized a record number of saints -
280 - during his papacy. To help him along, the Vatican has relaxed already questionable
standards for authenticating the required miracles. The recent case of how Holocaust
victim Edith Stein became a saint illustrates the new fast-track-to-holiness policy.
Edith Stein was a Jewish intellectual who converted to Catholicism in 1922 and later
became a Carmelite nun. During World War II, when the Nazis offered to spare Jewish
converts if the Vatican dropped its public opposition to Nazi deportation of the Jews, the
Vatican refused. Stein, by then Sister Teresia Benedicta, was sent to Auschwitz and died
there in 1942.
Twenty years later, Stein's admirers started the process of canonization. Her case
received a boost from 1983 Vatican reforms that reduced the requirements for sainthood.
Politics played a role, too, as Pope John Paul II desired to strengthen the Catholic
Church by increasing the numbers of saints, including more from nontraditional
backgrounds, and to improve the world's view of the Catholic Church's record in World War
In 1987, the single miracle that was required for Stein's sainthood was verified as
occurring in Brockton, Massachusetts, to then two-year-old Benedicta (Stein the nun's
namesake) McCarthy. The child had accidentally taken an overdose of Tylenol, which put her
in a coma and in danger of liver and kidney failure. Her parents, who had raised Benedicta
and her 11 siblings in a highly religious household, asked everyone they knew to pray to
Sister Teresia Benedicta to save their daughter's life. She recovered fully.
Benedicta's physician, Dr. Ronald Kleinman, has stated that, while most children who
take large doses of Tylenol do not die, in Benedicta's case he did not expect her to live.
That was enough for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, who declared the event a
valid miracle and secured Stein's canonization.