Florida’s Episcopal Bishops Resist Gay Unions

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

If you are Episcopalian, liturgy is a big deal. Some in the church are still mad that the Book of Common Prayer, first composed by Henry VIII’s archbishop in the 16th century, was modified about 30 years ago.

Last week the General Convention of The Episcopal Church, meeting in Indianapolis, approved a liturgy to bless the unions of same-sex couples. The approval had several caveats attached. It is unofficial for now, and no priest or bishop can be coerced into presiding at such a ceremony against his or her conscience.

Since the liturgy can only be used in a diocese by permission of the bishop, it’s a good bet that Episcopal same-sex couples will not have their unions blessed in Florida unless they travel to Miami. More about that in a moment.

But despite the conditions, the Episcopal Church, the denomination of most of our Founding Fathers, is now the largest church in the United States that allows priests to solemnize same-sex unions.

The vote was never really in doubt. Conservatives who oppose the liberalization of policies about the role of gays and lesbians in the church have mostly left the American Episcopal Church, forming independent groups or aligning themselves with more traditional Anglican churches overseas. Those who are left are fighting a rearguard action.

Three of the four Episcopal bishops of Florida voted against the new liturgy, but their reasons are an indication of how weakened the traditionalists have become.

Bishop John Howard of the Diocese of Florida, which is based in Jacksonville, said the new liturgy was “simply not necessary” because such blessings were already being performed unofficially. Bishop Dabney Smith of Southwest Florida told his diocese after the vote that he would consider it carefully in conjunction with lay leaders and priests. Not exactly Martin Luther’s “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

Bishop Gregory Brewer of Central Florida, who succeeded John Howe in March, said during debate that the measure would put Anglicans in countries with strict sexual mores at risk, which is a pretty hypothetical argument. He did join 13 other conservative bishops in signing a statement of dissent that opposed the new liturgy on biblical and historical grounds, but he was the only Florida bishop to do so.

Brewer is following the lead of his predecessor. Howe took a polite but firm and carefully articulated stand for a traditional view of sexual relations, despite presiding over a diocese based in Orlando, which has the largest gay population in the country outside New York. Howe and Smith’s predecessor, John Lipscomb, joined 18 other bishops in signing a “declaration of sorrow” when Gene Robinson was ordained as the first openly gay Episcopal bishop in 2003.

The only Florida bishop who voted in favor of the new liturgy was Leo Frade of Southeast Florida. Frade is a native of Cuba, and some might have been surprised by his vote, given the traditionalist views of many Hispanics about homosexuality. But he has been allowing priests to bless same-sex unions for years, and Frade made a point of rejecting stereotypes in remarks made during debate at the General Convention.

The liturgy itself closely resembles the rite of marriage. The priest says such things as “we have gathered together today to witness (names) publically committing themselves to one another and, in the name of the Church, to bless their union.”

I understand the objections of the traditionalists, but the new liturgy is a necessary development. It is time that the church finds ways to bless the relationships of the same-sex couples in their midst. The liturgy tells gays, just like straight couples, they are “forsaking all others … as long as they live.”

Brewer, Howard and Smith may hold to their consciences, but the tide is turning against this particular part of tradition.

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Obamacare Ruling: Political Parties at Prayer

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

It’s a measure of how confused our society is these days that the Affordable Care Act was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on unlikely grounds by an unlikely majority. Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, not Justice Anthony Kennedy, a centrist, sided with the liberal justices. And the law was valid not by virtue of the Constitution’s commerce clause, Roberts said in his opinion, but because penalties for not having insurance are really a tax, which falls within Congress’ powers.

I leave to others the ruling’s implications for the presidential campaign, the stock market and the price of hummus in Riyadh. But if the ruling itself was unpredictable, the reaction from the religious sector was entirely predictable.

Those within the conservative Protestant orbit were appalled. The liberal Protestant camp and Jewish groups were elated. And the Catholics, well, it’s complicated.

Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission was astonished that the court “did not see the bill for what it really is: a blatant violation of the personal freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution and perhaps a mortal blow to the concept of federalism.” By Land’s account, Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature should just give up and go home, the Tenth Amendment having suffered a mortal blow.

On the liberal side, Kathryn M. Lohre of the National Council of Churches appealed to a higher power: “We as churches follow the bold example of Jesus, who healed the sick, sometimes breaking the religious law that governed society.” Jesus always trumps the Constitution.

As for the Catholics, it depends on who you ask and about what part of the law. Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, was delighted at the decision because it will bring health care to more people. The bishops? Not so much.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has praised the law for taking a step in the direction of universal health care, but they continue to assert that as an employer they should not have to provide coverage for contraception, even if employees pay for that coverage themselves. The bishops say it’s an infringement on their religious liberty, a view that is difficult for many non-Catholic observers to accept.

After the ruling, the bishops said they do not favor repeal. “The decision of the Supreme Court neither diminishes the moral imperative to ensure decent health care for all, nor eliminates the need to correct the fundamental flaws” in the law, they said.

The Affordable Care Act is a good illustration of the partisanship that has infected the nation’s religious scene. Conservative Protestants claim, correctly, that they have joined the political fray late, following the mainline Protestant church that for decades had played a genteel political game and the Catholic Church that has been intertwined in politics since the days of Emperor Constantine.

But it’s more than a little disheartening to see entrenched political ideologies reflexively given a theological rationale. Even the more nuanced position of the Catholic bishops has overtones of a conservative political agenda.

Religious groups should be able to make judgments about laws and the political process based on their values, but when those groups become rigidly partisan, they lose their credibility as organizations beholden to no earthly power. Some of these groups — on both liberal and conservative sides — have long since lost their identity as anything other than a political party at prayer.

Reaction to the health care ruling simply offers one more example of that.

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Easy to Criticize Cardinal Ortega from Miami

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

The ferocity of Cuban exiles leaves one amazed at times. They have not mellowed with age. Any hint of collaboration with the brothers Castro will earn their wrath, no matter who the offender is or how difficult his situation may be.

A recent article from the Associated Press described how Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the leader of the Catholic Church in Cuba, is being criticized for being too chummy with the Cuban government. Ortega is 75 and will likely retire soon, but there have been calls for his immediate resignation.

There’s been grumbling about Ortega before, but the latest criticism came in the wake of Pope Benedict’s visit to Havana in March. The chief accusation is that he failed to speak up on behalf of dissidents before and after the pope’s visit and in exchange, the government did not embarrass Benedict.

In one incident that outraged anti-Castro observers, Ortega called the police to collect some protesters who were demanding an audience with the pope. Ortega called them “former delinquents.” Carlos Garcia-Perez of Radio and TV Marti called Ortega a “lackey.”

In another incident, Cuban dissidents were released from prison as a goodwill gesture in advance of Benedict’s visit, then promptly exiled to Spain. The cardinal drew fire for not speaking on their behalf, which is ironic since Ortega has often pleaded for the release of dissidents.

Ortega has defenders inside and outside Cuba. The most prominent in Florida is Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who has to ride herd on the Cuban exiles in his archdiocese.

“To suggest that somehow he is a lackey of the regime is ludicrous,” Wenski told the AP. “Some of the cardinal’s harshest critics here are looking for a scenario that is easy to advocate outside of Cuba.”

Wenski is a conservative who isn’t going to be mistaken for a communist sympathizer. He also spoke a word of truth – it’s a lot more difficult to be a proponent for freedom in Havana than in Miami’s Little Havana. Like many religious leaders in Cuba, Ortega has had to negotiate a delicate balance between maintaining the church’s principles on human rights and keeping Castro’s boot off its throat.

It is not only the Catholics who have had to deal with this. The bishop of the Methodist Church in Cuba, Ricardo Pereira, studiously avoids discussing politics on his occasional visits to Florida. His church has flourished since the Cuban government relaxed its rules on religious practices around 1990, and you could say he is trying to keep the revival going.

Or you could say he has a lot to lose. His predecessor, Bishop Armando Rodriguez, spent many years in prison. A pastor from Cuba who emigrated here once complained bitterly to me that Pereira was in the pocket of the Cuban Minister of Religious Affairs.

It’s true that, as Jesus said, you can gain the world and lose your soul. Submission in the interest of survival would empty any religious group of its identity and self-respect.

But that’s an awfully easy argument to make from the outside. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who knew better than anyone, once remarked that martyrdom is a gift that is not given to everyone.

Cuban exiles who demand that religious leaders martyr themselves should test their own nerves by moving back to Cuba and speaking out. Courage is a lot easier to find in the land of the free.

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The Looming Irrelevance of Richard Land

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

From the beginning, the Trayvon Martin case exposed fault lines about race in America. One of those lines runs through the largest Protestant denomination in the country, and it has put one of its most visible leaders on the spot.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, made some ill-considered remarks about the case on his weekly radio program in March. The resulting backlash has revealed how an aging Southern Baptist leadership is becoming out of step with the culture they once sought to change.

Land had accused President Obama and civil rights leaders of using the Martin case for political purposes. Among other things, he called Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton “racial ambulance chasers” and said Obama had “poured gasoline on the racialist fires” with Obama’s comment that if he had a son, he would look like Martin.

“This is being done to try to gin up the black vote for an African-American president who is in deep, deep, deep trouble for re-election …” Land said.

Since conservatives seized control of the denomination’s boards and agencies in the 1980s, Land has been the fiery and often demagogic spokesman for the conservative politics and theology the Southern Baptist Convention has embraced. When he took over the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the denomination’s agency for public policy and moral issues, he was determined to put Southern Baptists into the heat of the culture and political wars.

However, his leadership often has put Southern Baptists in a bad light. In 1998, Land was one of the architects of Southern Baptists’ boycott of Disney, ostensibly because its gay-friendly policies made it anti-family. He only succeeded in making mega-corporation Disney sympathetic and turning himself and his people into the worst stereotypes of Southern backwardness.

No doubt Land thought his remarks about the Martin case were business as usual. But they were particularly unfortunate for a denomination that continues to battle a racist past. It was founded in the 1840s over resistance to calls for the abolition of slavery. In a recent Huffington Post commentary about Land’s remarks, Jonathan Merritt pointed out that Southern Baptists were frequently at the forefront of opposition to the civil rights movement.

Land realized the error of his ways after meeting with the Rev. Fred Luter, who likely will become the convention’s first black president next month. He also was criticized publicly by some younger Southern Baptist leaders.

In his apology, Land confessed “insensitivity” towards Martin’s family and declared “racial profiling is a heinous injustice.” He also said he “impugned the motives” of President Obama, Jackson and Sharpton, and he sent a letter to Obama asking forgiveness, which must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

Meanwhile, a young Baptist blogger detected that chunks of Land’s radio address had been lifted without attribution from other sources, and Land was forced to apologize again. He’s now being investigated by the denomination’s Executive Committee for plagiarism.

Just a short time ago, it would have been unthinkable that Land’s job would be in jeopardy, but he now looks vulnerable and this shows how the ground has shifted under the feet of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Land and many of leaders of the denomination’s conservative takeover are becoming senior citizens, and they are now worried about declining membership and baptisms. The confidence they had 30 years ago has slipped, and younger evangelicals are not interested in the kind of partisan cultural warfare that their fathers thought was necessary.

Land now represents a fading philosophy of public engagement, and his gaffes could be seen by Southern Baptists as a headache they don’t need.

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Can the United Methodist Church Reform Itself?

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

The United Methodist Church is one of those phenomena – like baseball or public education – that until recently grew best in American soil but now seems to be fading here and flourishing elsewhere. It is the second-largest Protestant Church behind the Southern Baptists. Its broad representation is illustrated by the saying that if you want to know who the next president will be, just poll a sample of United Methodists.

But the church suffers from declining membership – from 10.6 million in 1970 to 8.2 million in 2010 – and a crisis of confidence and, some would say, of relevance. (Full disclosure: I am not a United Methodist, but I did work briefly last year for the Church’s Florida Conference.)

About 1,000 delegates are in Tampa this week for the quadrennial meeting of the General Conference, which determines policy for the church. And there is a distinct difference about this year’s meeting.

Going back to the 1970s, these conferences have seen bitter fights over the role of gays and lesbians, and whether they may be ordained or whether clergy may preside at their union services. While that fight continues, this year’s energy is focused on a proposal to restructure the denomination.

It is an internal matter, to be sure, but Wednesday’s vote to approve a restructuring plan suggests the church may have summoned the will to overcome some of the institutional inertia dragging it down.

Reformers, including a majority of its Council of Bishops, wanted a more unified structure for its national agencies. These agencies — which oversee everything from education to missionaries to accounting — are all independent, each with its own board. The plan approved Wednesday would create a central council and eliminate some agencies.

“So little of our alignment matches our stated mission. This is an attempt to get better alignment,” Bishop William Willimon of the Church’s North Alabama Conference told me last week.

But many agencies have vocal constituencies who oppose the changes. Some suspect the reformers want to take the church in a more conservative direction, reducing or eliminating agencies devoted to social activism in favor of an emphasis on church growth and evangelism.

The proposal appeared in jeopardy last week when a committee charged with refining the legislation could not agree. That impasse is illustrative of how a denomination once united around the twin poles of personal piety and ministries of compassion has badly splintered into ideological camps. Willimon said that had the plan failed, it would have confirmed his worst fears about the state of the church.

The restructuring won’t impact most local United Methodist congregations, except maybe how much they will be asked to contribute to keep the national agencies running. As Willimon put it, “What happens in the local church is infinitely more important than what happens at General Conference.”

But despite pockets of success, local churches reflect the malaise of the United Methodist Church in microcosm. In Florida, membership continues to decline and age, despite the efforts of the last two bishops to reverse the trends.

United Methodist leaders were hopeful the restructuring plan might help the church focus more on its essential tasks. But it strikes me as a bit like trying to turn the Titanic.

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‘The Hunger Games’ Holds Up a Mirror to Us

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

Picasso once said, “Art is the lie” – something invented – “that enables us to realize the truth.” It’s rare for pop culture to attain that standard, but “The Hunger Games” comes close.

The movie is based on the first book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy. Aimed at young adults, the books and the movie are controversial for the disturbing notion that in some dystopian future, teenagers would be forced to fight to the death for a TV audience.

It is the function of art to provoke, and the film explores some serious themes. I wonder, however, whether the young people at whom the story is aimed are fully grasping them.

The story takes place in a ruined America of the future, renamed Panem. As punishment for a rebellion, teens are chosen to fight to the death for the entertainment of a corrupt ruling class. Collins has said that her inspiration was a fusion of the Greek myth of King Minos – who sacrificed young Athenian tributes to the monster Minotaur – the Roman gladiatorial games, and reality TV shows like “Survivor.”

One important theme is the age-old problem that Karl Marx described well – the struggle between workers who are not allowed to keep the fruits of their labor and elites who benefit from it and hold their wealth by force. The tributes sent from outlying districts to fight in the Hunger Games are (with exceptions, part of the rigged nature of the games) impoverished conscripts, with little hope of beating the system.

Grinding, hunger-riddled poverty is one of the forces that drives Katniss Everdeen, the story’s protagonist. Katniss is proud and defiant, but there is a nobility about her. She is better than those who have forced her to fight because she values life, family and freedom. Some ruthless fellow tributes have physical courage, but lack her moral courage.

The lines are sharply drawn between the sturdiness of the people of Katniss’ district and the hollowness of Panem’s rulers. The movie adeptly captures The Capitol as a city obsessed with entertainment, fashion, food and privilege. The elites are ridiculous in their attire and grooming. To them, the Hunger Games are not about life and death or even power. They are a diversion, a TV show soaked in sentimentality, with its heroes, villains and pawns.

The story holds up to us the distant mirror of the Roman empire. There are allusions in the Romanesque names (Caesar, Cato, etc.) but also in the portrayal of moral decay. “Panem” is Latin for bread, and it is a reference to “bread and circuses,” the policy that the gladiator games be accompanied by free meals to pacify the populace with entertainment and food.

It’s a striking satire about us, but do we see it? If young people go starry-eyed rooting for Katniss and ignore the lessons about the world they live in now, we will have missed an opportunity to take advantage of the artistic service Collins has rendered – to see the truth.

Consider the parallels with us: a society obsessed with entertainment, including enormously profitable blood sports on TV such as the NFL and mixed martial arts; a tendency to bathe all “unscripted” events, including political campaigns and murder trials, in sentimentality, assigning simplistic roles (hero, villain) to complicated situations; outlandish fashion shows; almost as outlandish food shows; a society in which the disparity between rich and poor has widened notably in the past 30 years.

A report just released by the U.S. Census Bureau states that in 2010, 15.3 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. In Florida, it was 16.5 percent, more than 3 million people, with a higher proportion among children – almost one in four. Hunger games indeed.

If “The Hunger Games” serves no other purpose, it might help middle-class young fans identify with an existence they don’t have to go to Panem, Haiti or Mexico to find. Some of their own classmates live like Katniss every day.

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As Easter Approaches, Is the Church Still Needed?

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

It’s Holy Week for Christians, and as Easter approaches, you can’t help but wonder whether the Church as an institution has any future at all. If a swelling number of voices from across the theological spectrum is to be believed, Jesus is terrific, but the Church is hopelessly bad.

This is hardly a new idea, but the latest version began drawing attention in January when a YouTube video went viral. It was a rap/poem by an earnest 22-year-old evangelical, Jefferson Bethke, titled, “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus.” Bethke says, “I love the church, I love the Bible, and yes, I believe in sin. But if Jesus came to your church, would they actually let him in?”

The video got more than 16 million hits and prompted a lot of discussion. One of Bethke’s points was that the Church in America has become too complacent and too identified with politics.

The same point is made by political commentator Andrew Sullivan in this week’s Newsweek cover story: “Christianity in Crisis: Why we should ignore politics, priests and get-rich evangelists and just follow him.” Him being Jesus, of course.

Sullivan, a Catholic who has leveled frequent criticisms at the Catholic Church, writes that its current infatuation with politics has produced hypocrisy and corruption, something Jesus would reject.

“If we return to what Jesus actually asked us to do and to be – rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was – he actually emerges more powerfully and more purely,” Sullivan writes.

He cites figures as diverse as Thomas Jefferson and St. Francis of Assisi as people who have tried to live this “love Jesus, hate the Church” approach, but these are not exactly guys the average Christian is going to emulate.

If anyone has reason to dislike how the Church can act, it’s me. I’ve been dismissed twice from church positions, once as a pastor. But I still show up at my congregation each Sunday for the simple reason that to be practiced rightly, faith demands community.

This tenet flies in the face of our individualistic society, which believes that self-reliance is a virtue in all things. Not so in religion. The idealistic notion of “just following Jesus” sounds great until you try it. It’s difficult even with others helping. It’s impossible alone.

In a Huffington Post essay titled “Four Reasons I Came Back to Church,” author Christian Piatt says he found what Sullivan dreams of, “a community that defied stereotypes” about Christianity.

“Fortunately, God’s grace is more persistent and patient than the time it took for me to get over my hurt feelings and biases against organized religion,” he writes.

Is there hypocrisy and corruption in the institutional Church? Undoubtedly. Is the Church too much involved in partisan politics? Absolutely.

Is the Church – in whatever size, shape or form – still needed? Yes.

To paraphrase Mitt Romney, churches are people, and in their churches people come together to worship, study, pray and help others inside and outside the walls.

It’s imperfect. And it’s indispensable. My question to Andrew Sullivan is, if you want to follow Jesus, where else would you go on Easter?

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‘Stand Your Ground’ Reflects Do-It-Yourself Culture

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

The Trayvon Martin case prompted a political cartoon by R.J. Matson of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. A black guy holds a smoking gun pointed at a dispatched white guy, also holding a gun, lying under a neighborhood watch sign. The black guy says to a cop, “I had a reasonable fear the neighborhood watch guy following me was going to fear for his life and shoot … so I shot him first.” To which the cop replies, “Makes sense to me.”

Matson puts his finger on a fundamental flaw of the Stand Your Ground law, which the Martin case has exposed. When someone –- in this case, neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman -– can shoot an unarmed kid and escape charges by hiding behind the law, it allows any amateur with a weapon to be a de facto professional.

Sure, cops can and do make deadly mistakes in confrontations. They’re human after all, and it’s a regrettable, and fairly rare, consequence of dealing with dangerous types. They sometimes mistake the innocent for the guilty, but they have training and rules to follow, with potential consequences if they don’t.

Zimmerman had no training, no rules and until now, no consequences.

Stand Your Ground is only the latest example of our do-it-myself culture, with its increasing intolerance for imperfections in the cords of community that are supposed to bind us together. It’s an I’m-OK-You’re-Not-OK attitude that demands the reins of control, no matter the activity.

Your kid’s teacher gives him a D on a test? Obviously she’s incompetent, and you are certain you can do a better job home-schooling little Johnny. Don’t like your doctor’s recommendation to take two aspirin instead of the latest prescription sensation? How dare he ignore your Internet research? You fire him and shop for a doctor who will do your bidding.

Stand Your Ground is a big helping of a volatile stew of rugged individualist mythology, Second Amendment fanaticism and the narcissism that I know best how to take care of myself. What do you mean, call the police and wait? Not when I’ve got a trusty .45. I mean, how hard can it be to subdue a bad guy? He is a bad guy, right?

Unfortunately, our entertainment culture contributes to the conviction that we should seize the levers of justice from failing institutions. Every film about superheroes or invincibly resourceful mavericks who make up their own rules in the pursuit of right only reinforces the fantasy that we, too, can be Batman.

The danger of Stand Your Ground is that vigilantism is a very real prospect. Anyone with an offended sense of justice now has the means to carry out with impunity what he or she believes to be a balancing of the scales.

What is now to prevent someone in Martin’s family from confronting Zimmerman, skirmishing with him, shooting him, and then claiming the same right of self-defense? The Hatfields and the McCoys could have put Stand Your Ground to good use.

The remedy for Stand Your Ground, short of its repeal, is for state attorneys to not assume a claim of self-defense is an automatic exoneration of manslaughter. Based on the facts as we now know them, filing charges against George Zimmerman might give pause to all do-it-yourself cops.

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Scoring the Florida Legislature On Moral, Religious Matters

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

For 30 years, ever since the Christian right made an alliance with the Republican Party, governments have routinely addressed religious and moral issues, and the 2012 Florida Legislature was no exception. What was interesting this go-around, however, was what didn’t pass, as much as what did.

Casino gambling, for instance.  Miami, Tampa and Panama City are natural casino destinations, but this year a bill to allow three $2-billion resort casinos in South Florida didn’t even clear its first House committee hearing.

The GOP’s social and religious conservatives held the powerful gaming industry at bay and in this instance, served the public good by preventing the scourge of casinos.

But the party’s praying wing failed to get their way on an anti-abortion measure. A bill that passed the House would have imposed a 24-hour waiting period and required doctors to take annual ethics training. A bipartisan coalition of senators, including three female Republicans –- Paula Dockery, Nancy Detert and Evelyn Lynn -– blocked it from being heard on the Senate floor.

Except for a provision that new abortion clinics be owned by physicians – an attempted blow against Planned Parenthood – the bill’s requirements didn’t seem particularly onerous, but you have to admire the guts of those three senators. A lot has been written in recent months about the Republican Party’s so-called “war on women.” In this instance, women within the party declared enough and fought back.

Another failure that brings a sigh of relief was the absurd “Application of Foreign Law” bill, which passed the House, but never made it to a vote in the Senate. The bill would have banned courts from accepting foreign laws or tribunal decisions as part of non-business contracts. If this sounds strange, it’s because the bill was aimed at one thing only: Sharia law, the Islamic legal code that lawmakers seem convinced is about to take over American courts.

The measure was modeled on legislation propagated by anti-Islamic activist David Yerushalmi. Ostensibly, the worry is that divorce settlements, child custody arrangements or other domestic affairs governed by Sharia would be approved by Florida courts, but this is a phantom concern.

The Florida Bar called the bill unconstitutional and “a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist.” Not only did Muslim groups oppose the bill, so did Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League. Orthodox Jews regularly use religious codes to govern their domestic affairs and this legislation might have affected them, too. Jewish lawmakers, Democrat and Republican, played a role in killing the bill, and good riddance.

One bill approved by both houses, unfortunately, allows school boards to permit student-led prayer in public schools. Although seen as a victory for the Christian right, even conservatives like John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council are dubious about its constitutionality. Lawmakers knew it likely violates legal precedent about separation of church and state, but passed it anyway.

Gov. Rick Scott ought to veto the measure, but you can be sure he won’t. Expect the inevitable lawsuit and the inevitable court ruling that strikes it down. The whole charade is a waste of time and precious tax dollars.

Assuming the prayer measure fails in the courts, the Legislature went 1-for-4 on the moral and religious front. As in baseball, not a very good average.

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The Sad Failure of Faith-Based Charity

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

A story in The Ledger of Lakeland earlier this week disclosed that the Florida Baptist Children’s Home will soon close two of its programs at the Lakeland campus. One is a group home and the other is a vocational training program, both for developmentally disabled adults.

I know something about the group home. My wife is working on a project, and as part of her research, she interviewed the five women who live there. We paid a visit to them during a recent open house. They live as a family, sharing the home with house parents employed by the FBCH. Most have simple jobs or volunteer work, and they have a measure of independence.

The reason the home is closing, of course, is money, but behind the decision is a telling comment about the way “faith-based initiatives” work.

The adult group home opened in 1992 and “was supposed to be self-sustaining,” Charlie Cox, vice president for programs for the children’s homes, told the Ledger. But for each of the past four or five years, his agency has shelled out $40,000 to make up for cutbacks in state reimbursements.

By “self-sustaining,” Cox meant that all expenses were supposed to be paid for by government disability programs. Now that the FBCH has had to bear an increasing share of the cost, its response is to close the home.

The FBCH is an agency of the Florida Baptist Convention, one of the largest of the state conventions in the Southern Baptist Convention. For years religious and political conservatives have argued that private charities can do a better job than government in providing social services. Let the charities do it and get the government out of giving handouts, we were told.

Except the religious charities themselves were the ones with their hands out. The charities put up just a fraction of the money for the services. The government pays most of the cost.

Take Catholic Charities USA, one of the largest religious charities in the United States. In 2009, about 67 percent – two-thirds – of its income came from the federal government, most from the Department of Health and Human Services. How much of its income came from the dioceses of the Catholic Church? Three percent. Compared to government funds, you’d have to use a microscope to find the church’s own contributions to its charitable arm.

By the way, this is the same organization that is screaming bloody murder that its religious liberty is being violated by new HHS healthcare rules requiring contraceptive coverage for employees.

Now that government funds have begun to dry up, how have the charities responded? By taking responsibility and making up the difference? No, by cutting back or eliminating services.

The reality is that private charities have nothing close to the resources of government. In 2010, the executive arms of the country’s two largest denominations, the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, combined took in about $337 million, or about what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spends every three hours. Most denominations typically spend only about 10 to 20 percent of their budgets on “outreach” ministries.

There is nothing wrong with government subsidizing the work of private charities. It’s a partnership that makes sense, as long as everyone agrees on the ground rules. The FBCH group home has been an excellent, if small, program, like many faith-based social services.

What irks me is that religious and political conservatives pontificate about the superiority of private charities, which take government money, but then refuse to put up their own money when government support shrinks. It’s the worst kind of hypocrisy, and the result is that five developmentally disabled women are being turned out, likely to live with family members.

They are only five of many whom faith-based charities have failed.

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