The Adventist Review shares the following world news from Religion News Service as a service to readers. Opinions expressed in these reports do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Review or the Seventh-day Adventist Church. -- Editors
Church Leaders Appeal For Cease Fire in Gaza
.S. and global Christian leaders are calling on Israel to implement an immediate cease-fire in the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip, while U.S. Jewish groups have largely defended Israel's military campaign.
Gaza officials say some 600 Palestinians have been killed, and thousands injured, in Israel's air and ground campaign targeted to destroy the military capabilities of Gaza's ruling Hamas political movement.
Pope Benedict XVI has called for an immediate cease-fire and said violence "must be denounced in all its forms." The Rev. Samuel Kobia of the Genev-based World Council of Churches said the mounting deaths "are
dreadful and shameful and will achieve nothing but more deaths and suffering."
In Washington, several groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the umbrella group Churches for Middle East Peace, have urged the White House and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to push Israel to immediately halt the attacks. White House Deputy Press Secretary Gordon Johndroe said on December 31 that Hamas must first stop firing all rockets into Israel before any cease-fire can be implemented.
"A cease-fire and humanitarian relief are indispensable initial steps on the road to a two-state solution--a secure Israel living in peace with a viable Palestinian state--with justice and peace for both peoples," Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., wrote to Rice on behalf of the U.S. Catholic bishops.
Church groups on the ground reported a devastating humanitarian crisis as Palestinians grapple with dwindling levels of food and medical supplies. U.S. Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Anglican Bishop Suheil Dawani said the Anglican-run Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza would remain open. "Innocent lives are being lost throughout the land we call holy, and as Christians remember the coming of the Prince of Peace, we ache for the absence of peace in the land of his birth," Jefferts Schori said on Monday.
At the same time, U.S. Jewish groups defended Israel's response to Hamas rockets that have been repeatedly fired into Israel, especially the border town of Sderot. "We steadfastly urge Israel to continue these operations until Hamas, the terrorist organization, is destroyed," said Morton A. Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.
The Rabbinical Council of America, an umbrella group of Orthodox rabbis, said `Israel has every right and obligation to respond as it has, with the force it deems appropriate and necessary to fully eliminate the terrorist threat."
Richard S. Gordon, president of the American Jewish Congress, blamed Hamas for the death of Palestinians, who he said were placed as "human shields" near civilian locations that were used to hide weapons. "While any civilian casualties are regrettable, the culpability and responsibility for their deaths is attributable to Hamas," he said.
Atheists File Suit to Block Inaugural Prayer
Led by a California atheist who has tried to remove the phrase "under God" from the pledge of allegiance, a group of atheists filed suit in federal court December 30 to block prayers and mentions of God at President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration on January 20.
Michael Newdow, joined in his complaint by 11 atheist and humanist groups, filed similar, unsuccessful suits in 2001 and 2005, when President Bush was sworn in. He has also tried to remove the reference to God in the pledge of allegiance, arguing that it constitutes an illegal government endorsement of religion.
The suit names Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who will swear in the new president, as well as California megachurch pastor Rick Warren and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who will deliver the invocation and benediction, respectively, and other inauguration planners.
By adding the words "so help me God" to the oath of office, as Supreme Court chief justices and presidents have done since at least 1933, Roberts would "infuse the inaugural ceremony with purely religious dogma," the atheists charge. The atheists also object to the place of the Bible in the ceremony -- Obama has asked for the copy used by Abraham Lincoln in 1861 -- and the delivery of opening and closing prayers.
The atheists are not suing Obama, however, because he, "like all other individuals, has Free Exercise rights," the suit says, referring to the Constitution's protection of religious expression. The problem would come if Roberts "prompts" Obama to recite the phrase, according to the atheists.
"The use of sectarian prayer and religious phrases during the inauguration not only violates a clear reading of the First Amendment, it serves as a justification for the breach of church-state separation in other areas," said Bob Ritter, staff attorney for the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, the legal arm of the American Humanist Association.
Warren's inclusion in the ceremony has also been criticized by liberals, particularly gay rights groups, who object to his vocal denunciations of same-sex marriage.
In a video sent to members of his Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., Warren fired back at his critics, accusing them of "Christophobia" and "hate speech," according to Associated Baptist Press. "Some people feel today that if you disagree with them, then that's hate speech," Warren said. "If you disagree with them, you either hate them or you're afraid of them. I'm neither afraid of gays nor do I hate gays. In fact I love them, but I do disagree with some of their beliefs."
California Court Ruling May Impact Church Property Fights
The Episcopal Church claimed a major legal victory on January 5 when California's Supreme Court ruled that breakaway parishes do not have the right to keep church property if they secede from the national denomination.
And while the decision technically applies to only one church in one state -- St. James Church in Newport Beach, Calif. -- Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said the high court's "unequivocal reasoning applies generally through the Episcopal Church."
"We are hopeful that this decision will help bring remaining property litigation in California and elsewhere to a speedy conclusion," she said.
Episcopal leaders also hope that Monday's ruling will chill enthusiasm for a new, rival church in North America for dissident conservatives that was launched in early December. Dozens of conservative parishes--and four dioceses, including one in California--have left the Episcopal Church since the ordination of an openly gay man as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.
The denomination holds that local parish property is held in trust for regional dioceses and the national church. On Monday, California's Supreme Court agreed. When it disaffiliated from the general church," St. James "did not have the right to take the church property with it," wrote Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin for the seven-member court.
The court's ruling should have an immediate impact on the denomination's legal battle with the Fresno-based Diocese of San Joaquin, which seceded from the Episcopal Church in 2007 and aims to keep more than 30 church properties in its possession.
Chin wrote that "we granted review primarily to decide how the secular courts of this state should resolve disputes over church property."
A statement from St. James signaled that "the battle is far from over" and lawyers are considering a possible appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Two other breakaway parishes, All Saints in Long Beach and St.David's in North Hollywood, had put their property claims on hold and are also affected by the decision at St. James.
The ruling may ripple across church and state lines as well, according to legal scholars, bolstering denominations locked in similar battles, such as the United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church (USA), both of which filed briefs supporting the Episcopal Church, and warning conservatives to take heed before seceding. "If I were in litigation in another state I would certainly point to this and say, 'Hey, this is what another state's Supreme Court said,'" said Robert W. Tuttle, a church-state expert at the George Washington University Law School. Tuttle and others cautioned, however, that these kinds of property decisions tend to turn on facts specific to the case at hand.
The Rev. Peter Frank, spokesman for the Anglican Church in North America, the conservative rival province that was launched in December, said he doesn't expect Monday's rulings to staunch the conservative exodus. "People that have made the choice to be mainstream Anglicans are unlikely to be sued back into a group they disagree with just because a panel of judges tells them they don't actually own the candlesticks on the altar," Frank said.
The economic recession has not led to an increase in attendance at U.S. houses of worship, according to Gallup pollsters.
Despite anecdotal evidence cited in high-profile media outlets, Americans' worship patterns have held steady in 2008, the Gallup Poll reports. Since mid-February, Gallup said, it has asked 1,000 adults a day how often they attend church, synagogue or mosque.
About 42 percent have said they go weekly or almost weekly, with no increase in September through December, when the recession tightened its hold on the U.S. economy.
Gallup also said there have been no significant change in the percentage of Americans who say they attend church about once a month, seldom, or never. "The available data on self-reported church attendance among American adults do not appear -- as of mid-December -- to support the hypothesis that on a society-wide basis, the current bad economic times have resulted in an increase in Americans' churchgoing behavior," Gallup's December 17 report said.
The pollsters said they conduct about 30,000 interviews per month on church attendance, which results in a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percentage point for the surveys.