Orthodox Bishops Agree to Only Limited Financial Audits

BY KEVIN ECKSTROM                                                                                                       © 2006 Religion News Service

op leaders of the Orthodox Church in America have ignored calls for a special audit to determine if millions of church dollars were misspent in the 1990s, but agreed to look over the books for the last two years.

The church's 10-member Holy Synod of Bishops met in "extraordinary session" Wednesday (March 1) to discuss allegations of financial impropriety and parishioners' calls for an outside financial audit.

The bishops agreed to adopt "best practices" for accounting in nonprofit organizations, but limited across-the-board audits to 2004 and 2005. The bishops also asked for advice on how to make church finances "more transparent, disciplined and accountable."

And, in an apparent reference to a lay-led revolt over financial practices, the bishops Wednesday urged the church to "live as Christians in mutual repentance and forgiveness."

The 400,000-member church traces its roots to the Russian Orthodox Church but has been independent of Moscow since 1970.

Former treasurer Eric Wheeler -- first in a confidential letter last October, and then recently on the Internet -- alleged that church leaders misspent millions of dollars in donations, including money from military chaplains to buy Bibles that were never purchased.

Wheeler said the funds were used to pay personal credit cards and blackmail, for lavish dinners and entertainment and was given to friends and family members of church leaders -- most of it "off the books."

"During my years at the central church, I experienced a total abuse of power with no concern for accounting practice nor aspiration for accountability both internal and external," Wheeler wrote last October.

Church officials were unavailable to discuss the bishops' actions, but acting treasurer Paul Kucynda told The Washington Post the bishops "left the door open" for a more extensive investigation.

"Doing the independent audit will give them a sense of direction without being judgmental prematurely," Kucynda told The Post. "It really isn't some kind of stone-walling."

South Dakota Governor Signs anti-Abortion Bill
                                                                                                                                                            © 2006 Baptist Press      

In an action that supporters hope will result in the overturning of the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds March 6 signed a bill into law that bans nearly all abortions in the state.

Rounds' signature was historic, marking the first time since the 1973 Roe ruling that a state has adopted such a wide-sweeping ban on abortion. The law would take effect July 1 if not overturned and bans all abortions except in cases to save the mother's life.

Planned Parenthood, which operates the state's only abortion clinic, is expected to file suit in federal court to have the law overturned. The bill's supporters acknowledge that it likely will be struck down but they hope to see the Supreme Court take up the case and reconsider its decision in Roe, which legalized abortion nationwide. It is estimated that more than 47 million abortions have been performed in the 33 years since Roe.

"In the history of the world, the true test of a civilization is how well people treat the most vulnerable and most helpless in their society," Rounds, a Republican, said in a statement. "The sponsors and supporters of this bill believe that abortion is wrong because unborn children are the most vulnerable and most helpless persons in our society. I agree with them."

The bill passed the South Dakota House of Representatives in late February, 50-18, and the state Senate, 23-12. It received support from both Republicans and Democrats, men and women. The bill's Senate sponsor was a female Democrat.

The law makes it a felony for anyone to perform an abortion, although the mother would not be charged with a crime. The bill does not ban so-called "morning after pills," which can prevent the implantation of an embryo into the womb.

The new law -- named the Women's Health and Human Life Protection Act -- states that "life begins at the time of conception" and that an unborn child "is totally unique immediately at fertilization." The fact that life begins at conception is a "conclusion confirmed by scientific advances since the 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade," the law states. It further asserts that abortion must be banned in order "to fully protect the rights, interests, and health of the pregnant mother, the rights, interest, and life of her unborn child, and the mother's fundamental natural intrinsic right to a relationship with her child."

To read the complete story, click here.

Religious Leaders Rally Against Proposed Immigration Law

BY DAVID BARNES                                                                                                          © 2006 Religion News Service

A coalition of Catholic, Protestant, evangelical Christian and Jewish leaders urged Congress on Wednesday (March 1) to reject legislation designed to curtail illegal immigration.

They asked Congress to instead establish a process for illegal immigrants already in the country to earn status as lawful residents, and to make changes to speed up clearance for immigrants waiting to reunite with their families -- a process that can currently take years.

"We call for immigration reform because each day ... we witness the human consequences of an outmoded system," said the joint statement issued by 49 national religious groups. "Changes to the U.S. legal immigration system would help put an end to this suffering, which offends the dignity of all human beings."

The plea comes as some lawmakers are pushing to further tighten security along the U.S.-Mexico border, where they see increased smuggling of drugs and illegal immigrants and a possible entry point for terrorists.

The Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, recently passed in the House, would require faith-based organizations to ask immigrants for legal documentation before providing them with aid and penalize those that refuse to do so. The bill awaits consideration in the Senate.

The proposal's reach, said Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick,

"would extend to U.S. citizens as well, including those, such as our own parishioners, who offer, in an act of mercy, basic sustenance to an undocumented migrant."

In a Tuesday (Feb. 28) interview with the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony called on the city's 5 million Catholics to support humane immigration reforms. "The war on terror isn't going to be won through immigration restrictions," he said, adding that he would instruct his priests to defy the legislation if it becomes law.

Canadian Supreme Court Sides
With Sikh Student Carrying Dagger

BY RON CSILLAG                                                                                                               © 2006 Religion News Service 

In an important test of religious freedom, the Supreme Court of Canada on Thursday (March 2) overturned a previous ban and allowed a Sikh boy in Montreal to wear his ceremonial dagger to school.

The high court ruled 8-0 that prohibiting Gurbaj Singh from wearing his kirpan violated the teenager's rights under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, effectively the country's constitution.

The court rejected arguments from lawyers for the Quebec school board that originally implemented the ban. The court concluded there is no suggestion the kirpan, required to be worn at all times by baptized Sikhs, is a weapon or that Singh intended to use it as one.

The argument is "disrespectful to believers in the Sikh religion and does not take into account Canadian values based on multiculturalism," the judges wrote.

Religious tolerance "is a very important value of Canadian society," they added. "A total prohibition against wearing a kirpan to school undermines the value of this religious symbol and sends students the message that some religious practices do not merit the same protection as others."

The case stems from a November 2001 incident at an elementary school in suburban Montreal. Singh's cloth-wrapped kirpan came loose from around his waist and fell to the ground.

The school's principal ordered the 12-year-old to leave the 4-inch kirpan at home, but the boy's family instead enrolled him in a private school and took the matter to court.

In 2002, the Quebec Superior Court ruled Singh could carry his kirpan to school if it was sewn into a heavy cloth and placed inside a wooden sheath worn under his clothing.

The Quebec government appealed and in 2004, the Quebec Court of Appeal struck down the decision, ruling the kirpan had the makings of a weapon and was dangerous. Throughout the legal hearings, the family's lawyer argued that there has never been a school assault committed with a kirpan anywhere in Canada.

Canada's highest court ruled that if the kirpan is kept inside clothing, the risk of it being used for violent purposes or of being grabbed by other students is very low. "There are many objects in schools that could be used to commit violent acts and that are much more easily obtained by students, such as scissors, pencils and baseball bats."

The Supreme Court decision is limited to schools. Since Sept. 11, 2001, kirpans have been banned from all Canadian airlines. They are allowed, however, in schools in other provinces, in Parliament and in the Supreme Court itself.

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