- The Russian Orthodox Church suspended contact with the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden over a blessing rite for same-sex civil partnerships. “It is with great disappointment and sorrow that we learned that the Lutheran Church of Sweden not only failed to oppose so-called same-sex marriages but also issued a decree to establish an official blessing rite for those marriages,” the Russian church’s Holy Synod said in a statement. The two churches meet regularly as part of “Theobalt,” a network of Baltic Sea Christians. Johan Dalman, the Swedish church’s ecumenical officer, said the denomination hopes to discuss the issue with the Russian church.
- Ninety-one percent of white Roman Catholics and 84 percent of white Protestants support allowing a patient or closest family member to decide if medical action should be taken to prolong life, according to the Pew Research Center. Since a similar poll in 1990, the percentage of individuals believing the patient and family should control their medical destiny rose 11 percentage points for white Catholics and four points for white Protestants. The poll couldn’t separate out other ethnicities.
- *Lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s guilty plea underscores the need for a “strict” code of ethics to steer politicians from the “moral pitfalls” of Washington, D.C., said Bob Edgar, head of the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical organization to which the ELCA belongs. Edgar said Abramoff’s admission in federal court to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials comes “as no surprise” to people of faith. “In these treacherous times, the sinful have included politicians, industrialists, judges, attorneys and, yes, even servants of the church,” he said. “As dismayed as we are by the behavior of politicians who flocked to Jack Abramoff’s bountiful trough, church people know we are not qualified to cast the first stone.”
- *Christian churches in Egypt can carry out long-delayed repairs, thanks to a decree by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The decree follows appeals from the country’s Christians, who say they face systemic discrimination in a mostly Muslim country. Jubilee Campaign, a human rights group based in England, said in a 2004 report that Egypt’s Coptic Christians have fought an uphill battle related to building rights. Under the new decree, the government has 30 days to approve church requests for renovations and governors must justify a rejection.
- Two 16-year-olds expelled from California Lutheran High School sued the school for invasion of privacy and discrimination. They’re seeking re-enrollment at the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod school in Wildomar, Calif., unspecified damages and an injunction barring the school from excluding gays and lesbians. The lawsuit alleges that principal Gregory Bork grilled the girls on their sexual orientation and “coerced” one into saying she loved the other. The next day, the suit says, Bork told their parents the girls couldn’t stay at the school with “those feelings.” In a letter to the parents, Bork acknowledged that officials hadn’t seen physical contact between the girls but called their friendship “uncharacteristic of normal girl relationships,” which “violates our Christian Code of Conduct.” The girls’ lawyer, Kirk D. Hanson, said the school must comply with state civil rights laws because it functions as a business by collecting tuition.
- Christian leaders who oppose embryonic stem cell research praised the Stem Cell Therapeutic and Research Act of 2005, which President George W. Bush signed in December. “This is wonderful news for the many thousands of suffering patients who can benefit from umbilical cord blood stem cell treatments,” said Richard M. Doerflinger, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ expert on bioethics. The legislation intends to prevent hospitals from discarding umbilical cords and calls for authorization of $79 million to collect and store cord blood stem cells.
- The National Council of Churches will dedicate 2006 to protecting wilderness areas. The NCC’s Public Lands Stewardship Initiative is urging congregations to lobby to protect wilderness areas. “Wild lands are the connective tissue that holds together the glorious web of life by providing space for wildlife and undisturbed natural cycles,” said Christine Hoekenga, an NCC land specialist. “But God’s gift of wilderness is increasingly threatened by our swelling cities, growing highways and increasing demand for resources like oil, gas, timber and minerals.”
- Christian Brothers Investment Services, New York, which promotes socially responsible and ethical investing, has released guidelines to help retailers steer children away from video games containing violence, racist content and sexual themes. To keep minors away from M-rated (mature) video games, the guidelines ask retailers to post video game sales policies prominently in stores and online, to train employees on the policy and separate M-rated from youth-oriented games.
- The Vart Land newspaper reported that 14 out of 20 members of a government-appointed commission want to relax ties between the (Lutheran) Church of Norway and the state. Since the Lutheran-led Reformation in 1537, the Church of Norway has had the reigning king as its formal head. The Vart Land said the commission will propose that Norway follows many changes made in Sweden in 2000, where the country’s constitution no longer refers to the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden. The report said the commission will propose that the church’s general synod take over authority that now rests with the king and the government, including for finance and the appointment of bishops and clergy.
- A bankruptcy judge ruled Roman Catholic parishes and schools in western Oregon aren’t separate from the Archdiocese of Portland. At issue was whether property belongs to individual parishes or the archdiocese. The ruling could determine whether the parishes’ estimated $500 million in real estate, cash and investments could be used to pay millions of dollars in child sexual-abuse claims. The archdiocese declared bankruptcy the day it was scheduled to go to trial in a $135 million sex-abuse lawsuit. It already has made settlements totaling $53 million for more than 130 previous claims. The bankruptcy froze dozens of other claims.
- New Jersey authorities can’t use “ethnicity, religious affiliation or religious practice” as the sole factor in deciding to investigate someone for possible terrorist activity, according to an order by state Attorney Gen. Peter Harvey. The action responds to allegations that the state’s counterterrorism office targeted suspects solely because of their Muslim faith or Arab heritage. Police can still use race and religious identifiers when advised to “be on the lookout” for a specific suspect.
- Now that a Pennsylvania ruling has been made on intelligent design, Ohio could become the next legal battleground over the teaching of evolution in public schools. U.S. District Judge John Jones III ruled Dec. 20 that intelligent design is creationism in disguise and can’t be taught as an alternative to evolution in public school science classes. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which helped bring the Dover, Pa., lawsuit, obtained records from the Ohio Department of Education pertaining to the state school board’s adoption of a controversial science lesson plan nearly two years ago. That action is a prelude to a possible challenge of the lesson, “Critical Analysis of Evolution,” which critics contend is warmed-over intelligent design. After the Dover ruling, critics gave Ohio an ultimatum: Get rid of the plan or face a long, costly lawsuit. State Education Department spokesman J.C. Benton said the curricula simply requires students to think critically about scientific theories such as evolution.
- Pope Benedict XVI warned that the rise of Islamic terrorism, countered by the use of unchecked military force, was leading the world toward a “clash of civilizations.” Benedict said the “temptation to use overpowering violence” to deal with religious and ethnic disputes fuels extremism worldwide. Appearing to direct the force of his criticism at faith-inspired terrorist activity, he said, “No situation can justify such criminal activity... It is all the more deplorable when it hides behind religion, thereby bringing the pure truth of God down to the level of the terrorists’ own blindness and moral perversion.”
- Muslim-American groups welcomed the Treasury Department’s revised guidelines on how to ensure that funds raised by nonprofits don’t inadvertently go to terrorist organizations. “We want to make sure not a single cent of Muslim and American charity should go to anyone involved in terrorist activity or anyone with a terrorist philosophy,” said Sayyid Sayeed, secretary-general of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest umbrella group for Muslim organizations in North America. After Sept. 11, 2001, the government shut down some Muslim-American charities, alleging funds were being diverted to terrorist organizations abroad. The shutdowns prompted concern by the 9/11 Commission that civil liberties were being restricted. The Senate Finance Committee recently ended a probe into 25 Muslim-American organizations after failing to find links to terrorism.
- In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that assisted suicide is legal in Oregon despite the Bush administration’s interpretation of federal drug laws. In 2001, Oregon challenged a directive from then Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft that anyone administering federally controlled drugs for assisted suicide would violate the Controlled Substances Act. The Supreme Court said the act doesn’t allow the attorney general to impose federal control over doctors operating in a state that permits assisted suicide. More than 200 residents have carried out physician-assisted suicides since Oregon’s Death With Dignity law went into effect in 1997.
- More than 100,000 New York City-area Jews live in “near poverty,” according to a Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. A third of all Jewish households in the five boroughs of New York, Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties subsist on no more than $35,000 annually, barely enough to cover the cost of food, medicine and transportation in the area. Synagogue membership, kosher food and Jewish school tuition are beyond the reach of many. The council’s survey urged Jewish organizations to provide the nearly poor with greater job training, housing and health-care assistance.
- Slovakia’s Orthodox, Lutheran and Roman Catholic bishops welcomed a drop in viewership of TV “reality shows,” after Christian groups accused them of eroding moral values. Big Brother and The Chosen attracted record audiences when they first aired in mid-2005, showing participants gaining “points” by engaging in sex and bizarre antics on live TV. In November, Slovak newspapers reported that the Summit Motors car plant was the first company to withdraw advertising from the shows, following a viewership drop of about 50 percent. Church groups had urged viewers to shun the programs and boycott firms that advertised during the shows.
- The Vatican’s top official for church unity has repeated calls for a joint synod of Roman Catholic and Orthodox bishops to debate papal primacy and other “practical” issues that divide the two traditions. “There’s no shortage of troubles between us, and these can only be settled by dialogue,” said Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Ties between the two church bodies have been tense in recent years over accusations of Catholic “proselytizing” in traditionally Orthodox areas, as well as over the post-communist revival of Greek or Eastern Catholic churches, which combine loyalty to Rome with the eastern liturgy.
- After a 10-year shareholder initiative, religious investors declared a victory in pressuring General Electric to reveal it had spent $800 million from 1990 to 2005 fighting efforts to clean up its discharges of toxic polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) at a 200-mile stretch of the Hudson River; the Housatonic River in Pittsfield, Mass.; and a former transformer facility in Rome, Ga. The Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment said GE deserves credit for belatedly acknowledging the costs associated with its efforts to delay the cleanup, but it’s time for the company to undertake a full and extensive effort to rid the environment of its PCB contamination.
- Under the charter approved in October 2005, Islam will predominantly govern Iraqi law and religious sects will decide issues involving marriage and inheritance. Currently those issues are resolved in civil courts. “Muslim women are going to suffer if the civil courts are completely abolished,” said Annam Al-Soltany, a lawyer and member of the Progressive Women’s League, an advocacy group. Al-Soltany argued that the Quran clearly states women are inferior to men, which will make it nearly impossible for women to receive fair treatment in an Islamic court. “The civil law offers more protection, but Iraq is a very religious society, and many people, including women, want Islamic laws and Islamic courts,” she said. Amid the debate, Iraqi women have made advances in government and will hold at least 25 percent of parliamentary seats.
- A year after a tsunami struck Sri Lanka, churches in the island nation say their relief work has promoted better relations with the country’s Buddhist majority. Lesley Weerasinghe, a Methodist pastor in Galle, where more than 4,000 people were killed, said initially Buddhists staged demonstrations when he tried to start building houses for Buddhist tsunami survivors at a plot purchased by the church at Pujadigama. “They thought we were going to build a church in their village. But when they realized we were building houses for Buddhists, they started supporting us,” he said.
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