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Secular World

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 16, Number 1.


by Matt Cherry

As Israel's prospects for peace with its neighbors grows, the battle for the soul of the nation also grows. How central should Judaism, or even Jewishness, be to the state of Israel? This potent question is pitting Orthodox Jews against secular Israelis, and new immigrants against the Zionist pioneers who built the Jewish nation.

The issue of "Jewish nation versus secular state" has been brought to a head by a proposed law that would declare Israel to be a democratic and multicultural state. The bill was submitted to the Knesset by an Arab Israeli legislator, Muhammad Baraka. While Arab and secularist forces in Israel support the proposed bill, conservative Jews are trying to use the debate to their own advantage. Orthodox Jewish groups wish to rewrite the Law of Return—which guarantees Israeli citizenship to almost anyone with Jewish roots or spouse—to restrict immigration to those defined as Jews by Orthodox Jewish teachings. 

This power play by Orthodox Judaism is supported by many Israelis who feel threatened by the huge influx of immigrants to Israel in the 1990s. One in six Israeli citizens arrived from Russia in the last decade. Over 20% of these one million Russian-born Israelis are not Jewish according to Orthodox law, and over 50% of Russian immigrants in 1998 were non-Jewish. There are also about one million Arab Israelis.

"I see this as a deep, profound debate going way beyond our immigration law," said Yuli Tamir, the immigration minister. "What will the nature of Israel be? A religious Jewish state? A state of all its citizens? A secular, democratic, and Jewish state? It is a debate that will engage us for many, many years."

Israel's secular majority is increasingly unhappy with the privileged status that their state grants to Orthodox Judaism. In the last general election, two new parties gained seats by making opposition to religious privilege central to their campaigns. Israel's religious parties also gained seats. As Israel normalizes its relationship with the Arab world—and its citizens focus more on the domestic issues that concern voters in most democracies—the question of the separation of synagogue and state is sure to become more prominent—and more bitterly divisive. 


by Matt Cherry

On January 1, 2000, Sweden formally disestablished the Lutheran Church. For nearly five centuries the Lutheran Church had been the official state Church, with an array of privileges including state financial support. Legislation to disestablish the Church had been approved by Parliament in 1995 and subsequently confirmed in a national referendum. According to a recent poll commissioned by the Lutheran Church, only one in a hundred Swedes goes to church as often as once a week.


by Tom Flynn

Asheville, N.C., mayor Leni Sitnick announced she will never again issue a proclamation honoring a person or group after a proclamation recognizing pagan religions sparked outrage among the town's Christians. Sitnick had proclaimed Earth Religions Awareness Week at the request of a local witches' circle. Local ministers charged the proclamation could encourage children to dabble in the occult and pressured Sitnick to declare "Lordship of Jesus Christ Awareness Week" instead. Ultimately the witches' circle returned the contested proclamation and Mayor Sitnick has decided to stop issuing honorary proclamations. "I am deeply saddened that a gesture of good intention to support religious tolerance and freedom has caused division in our community," she said of the Christian protests.


by Matt Cherry

British playwright Terence McNally is the latest writer to receive an Islamic death sentence for blasphemy. A London-based mullah, Omar Bakri Muhammad, issued the fatwa (Islamic legal judgement) in response to McNally's play Corpus Christi. The play was also attacked by Christian fundamentalists in the United States because of its depiction of Jesus Christ as gay.

Although Muslims consider it blasphemous to call Jesus Christ "the son of God," they do count Jesus as a divinely inspired prophet. "The fatwa is to express the Islamic point of view that those who are insulting to Allah and the Messengers of God must understand it is a crime," said Sheikh Muhammad. Having defended the good name of Christ, the Sheikh then accused Christian Churches of "blasphemy" for not stopping the play.


by Tom Flynn

Pennsylvania's Supreme Court will decide whether parents can be held liable if their mature minor child refuses medical care on religious grounds. Dennis and Lorie Nixon were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to prison after their daughter Shannon, 17, died in a diabetic coma. The Nixons belong to a sect that rejects medicine in favor of prayer; their attorney argues that Shannon made a mature decision to reject insulin treatment, and that even though she was a minor, her parents should not be criminally liable for what is broadly conceded as her independent decision to rely on prayer. Tennessee, Illinois, and West Virginia have adopted the so-called "mature minor" doctrine to shield parents from prosecution in such cases.


by Matt Cherry

Turkey's battle between Islam and secularism claimed another victim in October 1999, when a car bomb killed pro-secular journalist Ahmet Taner Kislali. The political science professor and former government minister for culture was well-known for challenging radical Islam in his column in the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet.

The strictly secular constitution of Turkey is under constant attack from Islamists. Another secularist writer at Kislali's newspaper was killed by a car bomb in1993. According to news reports the "Great Eastern Islamic Raiders' Front" claimed responsibility for the latest assassination.


by Tom Flynn

California's Mormon church is urging its 740,000 members to give money - and their votes - to support passage of a spring ballot initiative to ban gay and lesbian marriages. In 1998, the Salt Lake City-based church spent more than $1 million on anti-gay-marriage initiatives in Alaska and Hawaii. Critics have questioned the church's participating so overtly in the election process, normally off-limits for churches. Because the definition of the family is important in Mormon teaching and because the church is advocating for a referendum rather than a candidate, few observers expect action against the church.


by Tom Flynn

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn a Federal court verdict compelling Orange County, New York, to pay a symbolic $1 in damages to atheist Robert Warner. After a 1990 alcohol-related driving offense, a judge followed Orange County's recommendation and required Warner to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Warner balked because of AA's religious content; a state court ruled that Warner could skip the meetings, but only if he attended a private treatment program at his own expense. Warner then sued the county in federal court. A federal judge found that the county's actions violated Warner's rights and amounted to an establishment of religion, but set a symbolic $1 in damages. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling. The Supreme Court's refusal to hear the case sets no precedent. In recent years judges, prosecutors, and corrections officials have grown more aware of AA's religious dimension and more likely to offer secular choices like Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) as alternatives to mandatory AA attendance.


by Tom Flynn

U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott airily dismissed a Cincinnati lawyer's suit against federal recognition of Christmas. Richard Ganulin had argued that ordering banks, post offices, and federal offices closed on December 25 impermissibly establishes the Christian religion. Noting that non-Christians celebrate Christmas too, Dlott handed down a quirky, even jejune, decision that includes, among other things, nine stanzas of nursery rhyme composed by the judge for the occasion. A sample:

The court will uphold
Seemingly contradictory causes
Decreeing "The establishment" AND "Santa"
both worthwhile "CLAUS(es)!"

We are all better for Santa
The Easter Bunny too
And maybe the great pumpkin
To name just a few!


by Matt Cherry

In a defining moment in the struggle for recognition of gay and lesbian relationships, Vermont's Supreme Court has ruled that lesbian and gay couples are entitled to all of the same "common benefits and protections" which the law gives to married couples. The ruling, announced on December 20, 1999, makes Vermont the first state in the US to require complete equality for same sex relationships.

The finding that the Constitution requires that gay and lesbian couples be given equal treatment under the law "is simply, when all is said and done, a recognition of our common humanity," the court said.

In a sweeping decision for four of the justices, the court left it to state lawmakers to determine whether such benefits will come through formal marriage or a system of domestic partnerships. The ruling, which is based on the Vermont constitution, is final and cannot be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The couples in the case had argued that their inability to get married denied them the protection of more than 300 state laws, which, the Supreme Court acknowledged, include "access to a spouse's medical, life, and disability insurance, hospital visitation and other medical decision making privileges, spousal support, intestate succession, homestead protections, and many other statutory protections."

While the justices left it up to the legislature to ensure that same-gender partners are not denied equal benefits, it made clear that the system "must conform with the constitutional imperative to afford all Vermonters the common benefit, protection, and security of the law," the court said.

In a concurring and dissenting opinion, Judge Denise R. Johnson said that her colleagues had abdicated this responsibility and should have directed the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Commenting on the decision, Matthew Coles, Director of the ACLU's national Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, said that the next turn in the battle for legal recognition of lesbian and gay relationships will depend on which of the two courses the Court laid out for the Vermont legislature is followed.

"If the legislature adopts a fully equal domestic partnership system," Coles said, "we can expect to see campaigns to get similar systems adopted all across the counrty. The response will be largely political. On the other hand," Coles went on, "if the legislature approves same sex marriage, people are likely to marry in Vermont and challenge their home states to recognize the marriages."

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This page was last updated 12/04/2003

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