Bush Administration Backs Withholding
of Union Dues on Religious Grounds
BY BILL SLOAT © 2005 Religion News Service
s a $33.91-an-hour air-pollution control worker for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Glen Greenwood has paid dues or fees since the 1970s to the union that represents state workers. Greenwood also is an elder at the First Presbyterian Church in Lancaster, a small town on the edge of the state's Appalachian region. He believes the Bible teaches that abortion is the taking of human life and homosexual conduct is immoral.
So when Greenwood learned of the union's stand for abortion rights and its support for gay rights, he sought permission to stop paying the fees. Although he is not a union member, he still pays for the representation he gets under the state contract. Greenwood offered to donate the money, around $34 every pay period, to charity. The state, which deducts the union fee from his check, rejected his offer.
Now the Bush administration has challenged Ohio's labor contract with 36,000 public employees, arguing in federal court in Columbus that the state violated religious freedoms guaranteed under the 1964 Civil Rights Act by sticking to the contract. The case could have national implications. The issue: whether Ohio compels nonunion workers like Greenwood to finance organizations with which they disagree on religious grounds.
In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled unions could not use money collected from nonunion workers for political activities those workers opposed. However, the unions could charge those workers for representation. Justice Department civil rights lawyers want Ohio to free state workers with religious objections from those costs, too.
"This isn't the kind of thing, how unions get their money, that the civil rights lawyers of the Justice Department traditionally are involved in," said Rafael Gely, a labor law expert at the University of Cincinnati law school. Gely is not involved in the case.
"Obviously, the government will frame its case as protecting the rights of individual workers," he said. "But by taking the side of the worker here, at the same time they are trying to weaken organized labor. If unions have less money, surely they have less influence."
Union spokesman Peter Wray called the Justice Department's lawsuit "a pretty blatant Trojan horse. Gay marriage, abortion rights are not what we're about." During the last three months, the dispute has managed to set off a potentially grueling legal struggle over the power and influence of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, widely known as AFSCME.
AFSCME Local 11, also known as the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, represents state employees. Unlike the unions for industrial workers, AFSCME and others that represent public employees have grown. About 36 percent of the nation's government workers were union members last year. Just 8 percent of private-sector workers were unionized.
Over the years, AFSCME has organized marches for abortion rights and supported the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. It has sought contracts with domestic partner benefits for gay couples and has lobbied for laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It opposes amending the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage.
The 1.4 million-member labor organization has generally been an ally of liberal groups and democrats in national politics. Its policies are anathema to many of President Bush's conservative backers, and the union has frequently been at ideological odds with the Bush administration over everything from tax cuts to Social Security reform and Supreme Court appointments. Unlike a handful of similar disputes around the nation, the Ohio battle is an unusual double whammy from Washington.
First, the Justice Department challenged the state's union contract in August, citing the violation of religious freedoms. Then the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a second case involving identical issues in September.
The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a Springfield, Virginia, organization that opposes compulsory unionism, describes the Justice Department's action as "unprecedented."
U.S. Catholic Bishops Condemn Death Penalty
BY KEVIN ECKSTROM © 2005 Religion News Service
U.S. Roman Catholic bishops on Tuesday (Nov. 15) issued a renewed call to end the death penalty, saying state-sponsored executions are unfair, unnecessary and unhealthy for America's moral soul.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, meeting in Washington D.C., affirmed church teaching that allows capital punishment in limited circumstances, but said life imprisonment is a better alternative. "We seek to build a culture of life in which our nation will no longer try to teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill," the bishops said in an 18-page statement. "This cycle of violence diminishes all of us."
In other action, the bishops approved new guidelines for the 30,000 U.S. Catholics who are working as lay ministers and doing many of the jobs once performed by a dwindling number of priests and nuns. The bishops said new standards are needed to make sure Catholics involved in education, counseling and even running parishes in the absence of resident priests are operating "in cooperation with the hierarchy."
On the death penalty, the bishops are hoping to harness growing skepticism over capital punishment, both among Catholics and the general public. A poll commissioned by the bishops last March found that support for the death penalty among Catholics has slipped to just 48 percent, down from 68 percent in 2001.
It might be a mistake, however, to make too much of the declining numbers. A separate Gallup Poll conducted last spring for the National Catholic Reporter found that 57 percent of Catholics support "stiffer enforcement" of the death penalty. While abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty are frequently condemned as part of a "culture of death," the bishops were clear that capital punishment is different, and that "people of goodwill disagree" on its merits.
Ruling in Intelligent Design Trial
Expected in December or January
BY BILL SULON © 2005 Religion News Service
A six-week federal trial in Pennsylvania over a school district's policy on intelligent design has ended with both sides claiming victory on the issue of how science should be taught in public schools.
U.S. Middle District Court Judge John E. Jones III plans to issue a ruling in December or January on whether the Dover Area School District's policy is constitutional, as the district has argued, or a violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, as is alleged by 11 parents who filed the lawsuit to have the policy revoked.
Since the start of the trial Sept. 26, the district's lawyers have argued that the school board's policy on intelligent design and the concept of intelligent design are not religious. The trial ended Friday (Nov. 4). The policy, adopted last fall, requires that a statement on intelligent design be read to ninth-graders at the start of a science unit on evolution. The statement says evolution is "not a fact" and refers to intelligent design as an alternative explanation of the origin of life.
After both sides made closing statements, district lawyer Patrick Gillen evoked a biblical theme, noting that Thursday marked the 40th day and 40th night since the trial began. "That is an interesting coincidence," Jones responded. "But it was not by design."
Many of the more than 100 people in the ninth-floor courtroom erupted in laughter, then applause. At issue is not just whether the board's policy was adopted with religious intent, but whether intelligent design -- which holds that some aspects of life are so complex they must be the work of an intelligent designer--is religious.
"Regardless of what happens, this is the watershed event for the intelligent design movement," Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center, the Christian firm retained by the district to defend its policy, said outside the courtroom.
"It's almost like the John Scopes trial of 1925," he said. "That became the event for introducing evolution into all the classrooms. This is a watershed movement where you're going to see intelligent design being introduced to classrooms all across the country."
Scholars: `Goliath' Shard Supports Bible Timeline
BY MICHELE CHABIN © 2005 Religion News Service
Although the inscription on a ceramic shard discovered during an archaeological dig probably does not refer to the biblical Goliath, the artifact's age and inscriptions may be consistent with a period referred to in the biblical text.
Aren Maeir, chairman of the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar Ilan University, which carried out the excavations, said in a statement released by the university that the shard comes from a time period "which is depicted in the biblical text." The Book of I Samuel relates that Goliath, a Philistine giant, fought the much younger and smaller David, but lost the battle when David hit Goliath's head with a stone propelled from a slingshot. Maeir noted that the shard has been dated scientifically to a period just 50 to 100 years after David and Goliath would have lived, according to biblical historians. For this reason, he added, "recent attempts" by some scholars "to claim that Goliath can only be understood in the context of the later phases of the Iron Age are unwarranted."
Although the inscription is written in Proto-Canaanite (Semitic) letters, the names mentioned belong to the linguistic family of ancient Greek and related languages. This lends credence to the long-held belief that the Philistines initially had roots in the Aegean region, before migrating to the Holy Land.
Despite the inscription's uncanny similarity to the name Goliath, Maeir told the Jerusalem Post that the statistical odds of it directly relating to the Philistine giant are "small if nonexistent." A Purdue University Libraries professor who invented a system to determine whether ancient inscriptions apply to people in the Bible has come to a similar conclusion.
Lawrence Mykytiuk, associate professor of library science at the school in West Lafayette, Ind., says the pottery shard found in Israel probably does not refer to the biblical Goliath but does lend credence to the story surrounding him. "This is evidence that non-Semitic names that are remarkably similar to Goliath were used within the time frame of this Philistine warrior in his reputed hometown of Gath," Mykytiuk said. "It provides well-grounded cultural background that supports the biblical narrative."