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
Denominations Trim Presence on Capitol Hill
BY DANIEL BURKE ©2009 Religion News Service
magine finally making it to the big game, then having to take half your team off the field. That's how it feels for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby that recently laid off more than a dozen staffers, said legislative director Ruth Flower. The cuts come just as the new Obama White House is opening doors that had been firmly shut to progressive people of faith during the Bush administration.
"We have a seat at the table now," Flower said. "We can talk to people in the administration and propose things and actually be listened to. We just have fewer people to fill the seats."
The Friends committee lost 20 percent of its budget in the collapsing stock market, Flower said, making the staff reductions painful but necessary. The remaining 30 employees are taking 10 to 20 percent salary cuts, she said.
The Quakers aren't alone. Religious advocacy groups across the nation's capital are facing budgets drastically curtailed by the economic recession. In response, some are cutting staffers or freezing travel budgets and salaries.
Charged with representing their churches in the corridors of power and educating members about Washington politics, many faith-based lobbies are financially supported by denominations that are reeling from a drop in donations and slumping stock portfolios. "Everybody's hurting," said Jim Winkler, general secretary of the Washington-based General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church. "I don't know any major denomination that's not having hard times."
Winkler said his office, which is supported by a small portion of the money collected at Methodist congregations, is asking staffers to cut down on telephone and travel expenses--to stay at friends' houses instead of hotels and to forego rental cars.
It's not just church-affiliated lobbyists feeling the pinch. The Family Research Council, perhaps the premier conservative Christian lobby in Washington, has moved a half-dozen employees off its full-time staff, according to U.S. News & World Report. And Hadassah, a Zionist women's organization that lost $40 million to convicted con artist Bernard Madoff, laid off two of its three Washington staffers, Washington Jewish Week reported in January.
"Our supporters are feeling the pinch just like everybody else right now," said J. P. Duffy, a spokesman for Family Research Council.
The irony for liberal-leaning groups is that the cutbacks are coming just as they emerge from the political wilderness. Many say they've already had more meetings with the Obama White House than during the Bush administration's eight years in office. "To date they have been very open to meeting with members of the faith community," said Maureen Shea, director of government relations for the Episcopal Church. "We know we won't always agree, but if we get to make our case we feel better about it."
Many mainline Protestant churches have been slimming down their Washington operations for years, observers say, as the denominations continue to lose members and change priorities. The Rev. Bob Edgar, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches, which is rebuilding its Washington office after cutbacks in 2007, said lobbying is a job best done in the capital. "This is the most important time to have a strong faith witness in Washington," said Edgar, who now heads Common Cause, a public interest advocacy group. "I don't think you can do it in New York. You miss too much not being here every day."
But for the Church of the Brethren, their six-decade long presence in Washington became too expensive to maintain after the small Anabaptist denomination lost $7 million in assets in 2008, largely because of the free-falling stock market, said spokeswoman Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford.
Church leaders shuttered the Brethren Witness/Washington Office on March 19, making the Rev. Phil Jones, its only full-time staffer, a man without a job. Jones, 54, said "one of the real struggles is that I was really looking forward to having access to the White House in this administration."
"It's devastating to me to that our church, which is a historic peace church, would cut its peace and justice program," Jones said.
Peace churches, like the Brethren, maintain that Christians are called to push their government to be non-violent.
As he packed up his office on March 25, Jones reflected on the day he was let go. March 19 was the sixth anniversary of the war in Iraq. Earlier that day, he had mailed a letter to President Obama, expressing concern about Iraq and the influx of U.S. troops into Afghanistan. "To me," Jones said, "it's a personal irony that the Iraq war outlasted my tenure."
Jewish Leaders Try to Combat Passover Price Gouging
NICOLE NEROULIAS ©2009 Religion News Service
Led by a state assemblyman and the director of a kosher soup kitchen, 30 ultra-Orthodox Jewish rabbis have signed a religious edict forbidding food manufacturers, distributors, and stores from "Passover price gouging."
During Passover, which begins April 8, Jews traditionally avoid eating anything containing fermented grains, including barley, rye, and wheat, that could be used to make bread. Foods must be certfied as "kosher for Passover," not just kosher, for consumption during the holiday.
The extra supervision required for these foods--even products like sugar and coffee, which don't normally contain any forbidden ingredients--combined with New York City's already-high grocery prices, have led to "astronomical prices" that observant families increasingly can't afford, said New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an Orthodox Jew who represents part of Brooklyn.
The recession has taken a heavy toll on the region's families, said Alexander Rapaport, executive director of Masbia Soup Kitchen in Brooklyn. The kosher facility now serves more than 200 clients each week, including three times the number of children than it did last year, he said.
"We're trying to help people put food on the table, and this year, it's gotten harder," Rapaport said.
While large supermarkets can negotiate bulk discounts, the small stores that specialize in kosher foods can't lower prices if the food manufacturers and distributors keep them high. To address this issue, Hikind said he has obtained commitments from several kosher food distributors, including Golden Flow, Mehadrin Dairy, and Ahava Foods, that they would maintain their regular pricing during Passover.
Ultimately, it's also up to the consumers to comparison shop and vote with their wallets, Hikind said. In a six-week survey of local stores, his staff found huge differences in prices for kosher-for-Passover goods, including a range of $2.79 to $6.99 for a five-pound bag of sugar.
"With the economic situation, this is going to be a tough year for families to buy what they actually need," Hikind said. "If you shop around, you'll save a hell of a lot of money."
Conservatives Lose Texas Evolution Vote
BY JERRY PIERCE ©2009 Baptist Press
A closely watched effort to keep a 20-year-old requirement that Texas public high school students evaluate the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories, including evolution, failed Thursday in a 7-7 vote by the State Board of Education.
In February, the board narrowly scuttled the strengths and weaknesses language when it voted on new science standards, but social conservatives had hoped to garner enough support to reinsert the language, with both sides lobbying the board and the public for support in the weeks before the meeting through e-mail and phone campaigns and newspaper op-ed articles.
Supporters of evolution had assailed the 20-year-old "strengths and weaknesses" clause as a back door to teaching biblical creationism, while evolution-only critics spoke of weaknesses in Darwinian theory.
The Texas school board decision has national ramifications because curriculum standards adopted in large states such as Texas and California influence content for textbooks nationwide.
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Poll Finds Catholics to the Left of U.S. on Social Issues
BY DANIEL BURKE ©2009 Religion News Service
American Catholics are more liberal than the general population on social issues such as divorce and homosexuality, despite the Catholic Church's longstanding conservatism on both issues, according to a new survey.
Catholics are more likely than non-Catholics to say that homosexual relations, divorce, and heterosexual sex outside wedlock are morally acceptable, according to an analysis by Gallup pollsters released March 30.
In other areas, Catholics are nearly identical to the population at large. For example, 4 in 10 Catholics say abortion is "morally acceptable," compared to 41 percent of all Americans. And 63 percent back embryonic stem cell research, compared to 62 percent overall.
Catholics who attend church regularly hew more closely to church doctrine, but are still more liberal on many issues than non-Catholic regular church attendees. Twenty-four percent of Catholics who attend Mass regularly say abortion is morally acceptable, compared to 19 percent of non-Catholic regular attendees. And more than half of Catholic regular worshippers say the same about embryonic stem cell research, compared to 45 percent of non-Catholic worshippers.
The Gallup survey was based on interviews with 3,022 Catholics adults conducted in May of 2006, 2007, and 2008. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.