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
Will Obama Tax Plan Hurt Religious Groups?
resident Obama's proposed 2010 federal budget contains a 7 percent cut in charitable tax deductions for the nation's wealthiest taxpayers. Some religious groups are asking how that will affect their bottom line. The answer: it depends who you ask.
Here's what it means in real terms for the 5 percent of Americans whose household income exceeds $250,000 a year. Those families can currently save $350 in taxes for every $1,000 donated to charity; under Obama's plan, that amount would drop to $280 per $1,000 donation.
"By doing this, you raise the cost of giving" said Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at The Tax Policy Center, a liberal Washington think tank. By Williams' calculations, the change will result in a 10 percent drop in charitable giving by wealthy Americans, who typically contribute about 20 percent of all charitable dollars. In real dollars, Williams projects a decline of about $6 billion in charitable donations because of the change.
At the same time, Williams said religious institutions may be spared because most wealthy Americans funnel their biggest donations to education, the arts and health care. Think campus buildings, art museums and hospital wards with family names attached. "My guess is that religious groups will not see nearly the drop that other charitable recipients will see," Williams said.
That leaves religious groups at the mercy of rank-and-file members and donors who have been tightening their belts in the economic downturn. For now, experts say, religious groups are probably on fairly safe ground.
Sylvia Ronsvalle, executive vice president of the Illinois-based Empty Tomb research organization, has studied economic data over time and says religious groups often fare better than most. "There does not seem to be an immediate economic relationship between church giving and the economy," she said. Translation: when times get tough, people still give to their houses of worship.
Indeed, in 2007, Americans directed 61 percent of their charitable gifts to religious organizations, according to a study by Bank of America. By contrast, high net-worth households spent just 15 percent on religious causes; the bulk went to education. "Our research of church member giving in past recessions found no direct relationship between recession years and church member giving," Ronsvalle said. "In five of six first-year recession years, giving went up. In the six recessions, giving went up in three and down in three."
In fact, the Salvation Army's holiday Red Kettle campaign brought in a record $130 million at the end of 2008--a 10 percent jump from the year before--in the midst of a dark and gloomy economy.
Still, some religious groups worry that the tax deduction change is coming at a bad time. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America is one of them. "In these distressed times, in which charities are serving more people's needs while at the same time already suffering a dramatic downturn in donations, the proposal to reduce the rate of tax deductibility for contributions is a recipe for disastrous displacements and cuts in much-needed non-profit sector institutions and services," the movement said in a statement.
White House Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orzag said the tax changes, if passed by Congress, wouldn't kick in until 2011, and he's confident the economy will have recovered enough by then to offset any potential losses in charitable giving. "... (t)he best way to boost charitable giving is to jumpstart the economy and raise incomes--and the purpose of the ($787 billion economic stimulus package) was to do precisely that," Orzag said in a White House statement.
Orzag also pointed out that between 2002 and 2003, the top income tax deduction for charitable giving was reduced from 38.6 percent to 35 percent, but individual charitable contributions actually increased.
President Obama's appointment of a special envoy for Sudan drew commendation from evangelical Christian advocates for peace in the strife-torn east African country.
Obama named retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration March 18 to serve as the U.S. representative in the effort to gain peace in Darfur, the country's western region that is engulfed in a government-backed, genocidal campaign, and to produce complete implementation of a treaty between Khartoum and the people of southern Sudan.
"I applaud the president for appointing a special envoy to focus on this critical crisis," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "I think it is critically important that we give our government's full and immediate attention to doing everything we can to avoid a human catastrophe of horrendous proportions in Sudan."
Franklin Graham, president of the evangelical relief organization Samaritan's Purse, applauded Obama's decision.
"This is a critical time in Sudan and it is important for the United States to do as much as possible to help the millions of people whose lives hang in the balance because of the ongoing crises there," Graham said in a written statement. "My prayers go out to both the president and General Gration that God would grant them wisdom as they navigate the complexities of Africa's largest nation."
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan panel on which Land serves, also commended the naming of an envoy. In February, USCIRF reiterated its call for a special envoy for Sudan in making a series of policy recommendations for peace in that country.
The crisis in Darfur deepened March 4, when Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir ordered at least 10 humanitarian aid organizations out of the country. Bashir's action came after the International Criminal Court in The Hague, The Netherlands, issued an arrest warrantfor him on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
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Episcopal Bishops Say Church Missed Economic Crisis
The Episcopal Church's bishops said on March 18 that they have been too "preoccupied" with internal disputes to pay adequate attention to suffering caused by the deepening economic recession.
Gathered in Hendersonville, North Carolina, March 13-18, for their annual spring retreat, about 125 Episcopal bishops unanimously approved the pastoral letter, the bishops' first joint statement on the dire economy. "In this season of Lent, God calls us to repentance," the bishops said. "We have too often been preoccupied as a Church with internal affairs and a narrow focus that has absorbed both our energy and interest ... to the exclusion of concern for the crisis of suffering both at home and abroad."
The Episcopal Church, which has about 2.2 million members, has been vexed by an acrimonious debate over biblical interpretation and homosexuality since the 2003 election of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. Four dioceses and dozens of churches have left the Episcopal Church since then and Anglicans worldwide have strongly protested the election. But the bishops said Wednesday that the church's concerns should be more broad.
"We have often failed to speak truth to power," they said, "to name the greed and consumerism that has pervaded our culture, and we have too often allowed the culture to define us instead of being formed by Gospel values."
Appeals Court Upholds Texas Moment of Silence Law
BY KARIN HAMILTON ©2009 Religion News Service
A federal appeals court on March 16 upheld a Texas law that requires public school students to observe a daily minute of silence following the Pledge of Allegiance.
"The statute is facially neutral between religious and nonreligious activities that students can choose to engage in during the moment of silence," a three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote.
The judges quoted a decision by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor that said "It is difficult to discern a serious threat to religious liberty from a room of silent, thoughtful schoolchildren."
The Texas ordinance, which took effect in September 2003, says students can use the minute to "reflect, pray, meditate, or engage in any other silent activity that is not likely to interfere with or distract another student."
David and Shannon Croft of Dallas sued Texas Gov. Rick Perry on behalf of their three children after an elementary school teacher told one of their children to remain quiet because the minute is "a time for prayer," according to the Associated Press.
The Crofts said the moment of silence "causes harm" to their children and is an unconstitutional way for the government to further religion. Another family joined the lawsuit but wished to remain anonymous. The court used a standard three-point legal test to examine the law's secular purpose, primary effect and whether it caused excessive entanglement with religion before affirming that it was constitutional.
"None of the courts examining moment-of-silence statutes have found that the primary effect has been to advance or inhibit religion, and the Crofts point to no case law that supports their contentions," the appeals panel wrote. Religious freedom groups welcomed the decision.
"A moment of silence is not a government endorsement of religion just because someone might use the time for prayer," said David Cortman, senior legal counsel of the Alliance Defense Fund. "No student is compelled to pray under the Texas law. The 5th Circuit was right to uphold the district court's determination that the law is not an establishment of religion."