Who Owns a Church? An U.S. Federal Judge Must Decide

BY STEVE WOODARD © 2005 Religion News Service

fter hearing more than three hours of sometimes heated debate, a U.S. bankruptcy judge will decide who owns the pews that Catholics in Western Oregon sit in each Sunday.

The issue argued before Judge Elizabeth Perris on December 6 is whether parish property belongs to individual parishes or to the Archdiocese of Portland, which encompasses 124 parishes, three high schools and about 400,000 parishioners. The ruling will be closely watched nationally for the precedent it could establish for all religions regarding church property disputes. In Portland, the issue is whether the parishes' estimated $500 million in real estate, cash and investments is available to pay millions of dollars in child sexual-abuse claims.

Perris has set no timetable, although she is expected to rule within the next several weeks. It's also possible that she will skip a ruling and order a trial instead. A trial would enable her to consider factual evidence, in addition to the purely legal arguments that lawyers have presented so far.

Sexual-abuse plaintiffs first posed the property ownership question to Perris in August 2004. That was one month after the Archdiocese of Portland became the nation's first Roman Catholic diocese to file for Chapter 11 protection in the wake of multimillion-dollar sex-abuse lawsuits.

The bankruptcy came the same day that the archdiocese was scheduled to go to trial in a $135 million sex-abuse lawsuit involving the late Rev. Maurice Grammond. The archdiocese had already made settlements totaling $53 million for more than 130 previous claims. The bankruptcy froze dozens more claims seeking hundreds of millions more in damages. Tuesday's hearing covered ground from obscure real estate law to broad constitutional questions of religious freedom.


Membership Trends Look Grim for Canadian Anglicans

BY RON CSILLAG © 2005 Religion News Service

A grim new report says the Anglican Church of Canada is losing 13,000 members each year and faces extinction by the middle of this century if trends are not countered. Membership in the Anglican Church has fallen by 53 percent over the past 40 years and continues to drop by 2 percent a year, the steepest recorded decline of any mainstream Canadian church, the study says.

The report, presented in October to a closed-door meeting of the church's House of Bishops, is a wake-up call, concedes the primate of the Canadian Anglican Church, Andrew Hutchison. "It's causing us to refocus our efforts on issues that we haven't been able to address effectively in recent years," Hutchison told the National Post newspaper.

He said that for several years the church has thrown its "energy and attention" into settling abuse cases at Indian residential schools, at the expense of "Church development." After years of legal wrangling, the federal government last month offered a $1.9 billion compensation package to tens of thousands of aboriginal Canadians who attended church-run Indian residential schools.

Observers say the worldwide Anglican Church's protracted debate over homosexuality is also thinning the pews. The Canadian report, prepared by Keith McKerracher, a volunteer adviser to the church, shows that between 1961 and 2001, Anglican dioceses' rolls in Canada plunged from 1.36 million to 642,000. And the decline is accelerating: Membership fell by 13 percent from 1981 to 1991, and by a further 20 percent between 1991 and 2001.

McKerracher says his warning to Anglican bishops was clear: "My point was, `We're declining much faster than any other church. We're losing 12,836 Anglicans a year. That's 2 percent a year. If you take that rate of decline and draw a line on the graph, there'll only be one person left in the Anglican Church by 2061.'

"The church is in crisis. They can't carry on like it's business as usual." McKerracher suggested the church conduct marketing research to find out why people are fleeing. "But I don't think the Anglicans will do anything. They talk things to death."


New Poll Says Americans Believe Religion Is “Under Attack”

© 2005 Religion News Service

Sixty-four percent of Americans believe that religion is “under attack,” according to a new national poll of 800 American adults released November 21, 2005, by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The poll found that 53 percent of Americans likewise believe that religion as a whole is “losing its influence in American life.”

Poll results also indicate large swaths of the American public expressing support for a more direct role for religion in the public square, with organized prayer in public school (47 percent), creationism taught alongside evolution (56 percent), and religious symbols such as the Ten Commandments displayed in public buildings (64 percent).

“The findings suggest that American public opinion is starkly divided when it comes to the role of religion in the public square, and that our nation’s proud tradition of church-state separation is threatened as never before,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL national director.


World Council of Churches Says Global Warming a Spiritual Crisis

BY DAVID E. ANDERSON © 2005 Religion News Service

The World Council of Churches on December 9 told a major
environmental meeting in Montreal that global warming and climate change is not only a technological and economic issue but a spiritual crisis as well.

The statement was prepared for presentation at the final session of the United Nations-sponsored Nov. 28-Dec. 9 meeting of some 90 nations on extending the Kyoto Protocols aimed at reducing global warming by reducing emissions from fossil fuels.

Some 10,000 official delegates, observers, environmentalists, business representatives and religious leaders are attending the meeting. It used a refrain -- "We would like to light a candle" -- to introduce each section of the seven-paragraph statement outlining the international ecumenical organization's views on the controversial issue of global warming and how it should be combated.

The United States, for example, has not ratified the Kyoto accord and President Bush has said it would be an economic disaster if implemented. The accord came into force in February, without the United States' participation.

"We would like to light a candle because we want to remind us all of the pain and disaster that is already suffered in various regions of the Earth due to climate change," the WCC statement said. It said climate change had already caused forced migration of people and said future disasters could affect people living in the Artic and the Pacific islands.

"We would like to light a candle because by burning down the candle we want to remind us all that time is running out," the statement said in another section.

"We pray that an agreement may be reached for negotiating equitable and sustainable targets for post-2012," the WCC said.

However, it seemed unlikely the final document that will be adopted by the UN delegates at the end of the session would have any of the commitments called for by the WCC.

Instead, the delegates appeared to be near an agreement outlining a vague road map extending the Kyoto Protocols -- without a timetable or new goals. Currently, the agreement calls for emission cuts of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by the 2008-2012 period. The Kyoto agreement expires in 2012 but requires that participants begin talks now.


 
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