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In the News (Jan/Feb 2023)

Faith-based provider defrauded employer

The executive director of a Wisconsin faith-based provider of homeless services faces five criminal counts for allegedly defrauding her former employer by illegally diverting school lunch money meant for economically disadvantaged children.

Connie J. Vacho, 40, is charged with three counts of misdemeanor theft and felony counts of fraudulent writing and theft by false representation, according to the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

Vacho was hired in July 2022 as executive director of Shelter From the Storm Ministries (SFTSM), which provides housing and life-skills training for homeless women and their children in Sun Prairie, Wis. She is accused of misappropriating money from the Waunakee School District and Taher Inc., a Minnesota company that contracts with schools to manage their lunch programs.

It’s alleged that the thefts and monetary diversions by various means from October 2019 to June 2022 amounted to more than $8,000. Some of that benefited her own children’s lunch fund balances and those of other students and staff who didn’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Taher fired Vacho in June after 14 years of employment, the last six as Waunakee director.

An SFTSM press release a month later detailed the hire and noted Vacho was a “faithful member” of the nondenominational Blackhawk Church outside Madison, where she also served in the youth ministry. 

Census: Christians now a minority in England

Fewer than half the people in England and Wales consider themselves Christian, according to the most recent census — the first time a minority of the population has followed the country’s official religion.

Britain has become less religious — and less white — in the decade since the last census, figures from the 2021 census released Nov. 29 by the Office for National Statistics revealed.

Only 46.2 percent of the population of England and Wales described themselves as Christian on the day of the 2021 census, down from 59.3 percent a decade earlier. More than one in three people — 37 percent — said they had no religion, up from 25 percent in 2011.

According to the AP, secularism campaigners said the shift should trigger a rethink of the way religion is entrenched in British society. The U.K. has state-funded Church of England schools, Anglican bishops sit in Parliament’s upper chamber, and the monarch is “defender of the faith” and supreme governor of the church.

Religious are less worried about climate change

Highly religious Americans — those who pray daily, regularly attend religious services and consider religion crucial in their lives — are far less likely than other U.S. adults to express concern about global warming, from a new report by the Pew Research Center.

Religious Americans who show little or no concern about climate change also say “there are much bigger problems in the world, that God is in control of the climate, and that they do not believe the climate is actually changing,” according to the report.

The report says the religiously unaffiliated are much more likely to say that climate change is an extreme or very serious problem (70 percent) than religiously affiliated Americans (52 percent). The report says they are far more likely to say the Earth is getting warmer mostly because of human-induced activity (66 percent) than those who are religiously affiliated (47 percent).

Ky. court strikes down school choice measure

A school choice program that would have provided dollar-for-dollar tax credits to those donating money for nonpublic school tuition is unconstitutional, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Dec. 15, according to a report by the Lexington Courier-Journal.

The program, blocked by lower court proceedings for more than a year, could have cost the state up to $25 million in its first year of implementation. Both individuals and corporations would have been able to write off up to $1 million on their state income taxes.

In a unanimous opinion, the court’s seven justices cited a section of the Kentucky Constitution that prohibits the state from raising funds for nonpublic schools.

The court declined to speak to the intent of the 2021 law creating the tax credit program — namely, whether the goal of raising money for more children to have the choice of attending nonpublic schools is with or without merit, though the justices did cite precedent from a 1983 case: “’We cannot sell the people of Kentucky a mule and call it a horse, even if we believe the public needs a mule.’”

Turkish creationist gets 8,658 years in prison

Televangelist and cult leader Adnan Oktar has been sentenced to a record 8,658 years in prison, following a retrial in Turkey on charges of sexual assault and depriving someone of their liberty.

Oktar, 66, fronted his own television channel, through which he delivered religious sermons. He is a fierce opponent of the theory of evolution, and wrote a widely mocked book on creationism.

He was originally given a jail sentence of 1,075 years but an appeal court ordered a retrial involving 215 defendants.

Oktar and hundreds of his followers were arrested in 2018 from his home on a litany of charges, including running a criminal organization, tax offences, sexual abuse and counterterrorism laws.

Report: Atheists just as healthy as the religious

The nonreligious are just as healthy and satisfied with life as their religious counterparts, according to new research published in Journal of Religion and Health. 

The findings cast doubts on the theory that religion and spirituality enhance personal well-being. Study author David Speed, associate professor at the University of New Brunswick, sought to test the belief-as-benefit effect, which describes a broad pattern of findings where religious beliefs and behaviors are positively associated with health outcomes. 

Speed used data from Canada’s General Social Survey to examine whether religion predicted physical and/or psychological wellness in a representative sample of Canadians. The survey collected data regarding religious identity, religious attendance, prayer frequency, and religiosity. The survey also included assessments of self-rated stress, self-rated physical health, life satisfaction, and self-rated mental health.

Eatery refuses service to Christian group

A restaurant in Richmond, Va., in early December canceled a reservation for a private event being held by a conservative Christian organization, citing the group’s opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion rights, according to a report in the Washington Post.

“We have always refused service to anyone for making our staff uncomfortable or unsafe and this was the driving force behind our decision,” read an Instagram post from Metzger Bar and Butchery. 

The group, the Family Foundation, was set to host a dessert reception for supporters on Nov. 30. About 90 minutes before it was slated to start, one of the restaurant’s owners called to cancel it. 

The Family Foundation advocates for “policies based on biblical principles.” It has lobbied against same-sex marriage and abortion rights.

While it’s illegal to discriminate against someone because of their race or religion, the restaurant’s refusal had to do with the group’s actions, said Elizabeth Sepper, a professor at the University of Texas. “It’s about the overall positions and policies the group has taken — it’s not about Christian vs. non-Christian,” she said. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, D.C., Seattle and the Virgin Islands specifically protect people from being refused service because of their political affiliation or ideology.

After School Satan Club delayed in Virginia

The Chesapeake, Va., School Board raised safety and security concerns regarding the proposed After School Satan Club (ASSC).

On Dec. 12, the board spent several hours listening to split public comments about the program. The Satan Club was scheduled to have its first meeting three days after the school board meeting.

Chesapeake Public Schools Superintendent Jared Cotton indicated that further review and a safety assessment are needed before making a decision on whether to approve the ASSC’s resubmitted application. 

Members of the Satanic Temple expressed that their First Amendment rights should not be up for debate.

“My religion does not need your approval to exist. My beliefs are not subject to your approval,” said Rose Bastet, a Satanic Temple volunteer. 

“The Satanic Temple does not worship the devil. We are not demons. We do not believe in demons, because neither exists,” said June Everett, campaign director of the ASSC and ordained minister with the Satanic Temple. 

Diocese seeks protection before clergy abuse trials

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa plans to file for bankruptcy protection in advance of the first clergy abuse trials resulting from a three-year period that gives adult survivors of child sexual abuse in California until Dec. 31 to file civil suits related to their experiences.

Critics immediately framed the move as an effort to prevent the disclosure of sensitive, embarrassing details about priest abuse and the measures they believe church officials took to hide misdeeds over decades.

They also chastised the diocese for choosing a route that would ensure there was no settlement money left for claimants who might yet be abused or who might legally file a lawsuit after the claim deadline established by the bankruptcy court.

Filing for bankruptcy would freeze at least 130 new cases involving the Santa Rosa Diocese. Those cases have already been added to a consolidated case list administered through the Alameda County Courthouse, which includes lawsuits from the rest of Northern California that have been filed since the three-year window opened at the beginning of 2020.

The Santa Rosa Diocese has already paid about $33 million in settlements related to the clergy abuse scandal that erupted on the North Coast in the early 1990s as survivors of sexual grooming and assault at the hands of priests began coming forward around the nation.

Ukraine may bar church that answers to Moscow

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for lawmakers to prevent the branch of Orthodox Christianity that answers to Moscow from operating in Ukraine, according to The New York Times. 

His administration is drafting a law “making it impossible for religious organizations affiliated with centers of influence in the Russian Federation to operate in Ukraine,” Zelensky said Dec. 8. In addition, he directed the government to conduct an inquiry into the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and its ties to Moscow, “and, if necessary, to take measures provided for by law.”

Several religious and legal scholars said it could face legal challenges. 

For centuries, the ancient Ukrainian branch of the church has been subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church, based in Moscow. The leader of the Russian church, Patriarch Kirill, has strong ties to President Putin, whose long tenure he has called “a miracle of God.” 

But that branch of Orthodoxy is rapidly losing support, while many Ukrainians now adhere to a newer Orthodox church, based in Kyiv, created specifically to be independent and not answer to Moscow. 

Nearly 40% think we’re living in the ‘end times’

In the United States, 39 percent of adults say they believe “we are living in the end times,” according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

Christians are divided on this question, with 47 percent saying we are living in the end times, including majorities in the historically Black (76 percent) and evangelical (63 percent) Protestant traditions. Meanwhile, 49 percent of Christians say we are not living in the end times, including 70 percent of Catholics and 65 percent of mainline Protestants who say this. Viewed more broadly, the share of Protestants who say we are living in the end times is greater than the corresponding share among Catholics (55 percent vs. 27 percent).

About three in 10 or fewer people from non-Christian religions (29 percent) and those with no religious affiliation (23 percent) say we are living in the end times. (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other smaller non-Christian religious groups are included in the survey and represented in the “other religions” category, but there were not enough respondents in these groups to analyze separately.)

Americans without college degrees are more likely than college graduates to believe humanity is approaching its end, as are Americans with lower income levels when compared with those with higher incomes. And Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are more likely than Democrats and Democratic leaners to express this belief.

Texas AG office sought data on transgenders

Employees at the Texas Department of Public Safety in June received a request from Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office to compile a list of individuals who had changed their gender on their Texas driver’s license and other department records during the past two years, the Washington Post reports.

“Need total number of changes from male to female and female to male for the last 24 months, broken down by month,” the chief of the DPS’s driver license division emailed colleagues in the department on June 30, information which the Post obtained through a public records request. 

After more than 16,000 such instances were identified, DPS officials determined that a manual search would be needed to determine the reason for the changes, DPS spokesman Travis Considine told The Post.

The behind-the-scenes effort by Paxton’s office to obtain data on how many Texans had changed their gender on their license came as the attorney general, Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republican leaders in the state have been publicly marshaling resources against transgender Texans.

Earlier in 2022, Abbott signed a bill banning transgender youths from participating in sports that align with their gender identity at K-12 public schools and ordered the state to investigate the provision of gender-affirming care as potential child abuse. State lawmakers have already proposed more than a dozen anti-LGBTQ measures ahead of the next session, including criminalizing gender-affirming care and banning minors at drag shows.

S.D. clarifies religious expression in Capitol

South Dakota lawmakers can adorn their office with a crucifix, but they can’t pound the nail into the state Capitol’s wall, a legislative oversight board clarified Dec. 6 as part of a policy regulating how religious symbols can mark the state’s seat of government, according to a report by the Associated Press.

The Legislature’s Executive Board took up the issue after two Republican lawmakers stained five chairs in a Capitol meeting room with oil as they marked chairs with crosses ahead of a meeting in November to elect caucus leaders. It took the Capitol’s groundskeepers about three hours to clean, but five chairs were left slightly discolored.

But the episode also raised questions about who had access to the Statehouse rooms where laws are formed and to what degree lawmakers, often compelled by their Christian convictions, can leave a mark in the Capitol.

Republican state Rep. Sue Peterson told The Dakota Scout that she marked chairs with oil crosses as an act of prayer before the Republican caucus meeting. She said many lawmakers often pray as they craft state laws.

Teacher sues after not using preferred names

 An Ohio teacher is suing her former school district for allegedly forcing her to resign when she refused to participate in the “social transition” of students.

According to a federal lawsuit filed by the attorneys for Vivian Geraghty, the school district required teachers to use a students’ preferred names and pronouns.

Her attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) said Geraghty’s “sincerely held religious beliefs and scientific understanding govern her view that a person is male or female based on sex, not personal identity, and participating in a student’s social transition violates those beliefs by forcing her to communicate messages she believes are untrue and harmful to the student.”

Geraghty, who taught English at Jackson Memorial Middle School in Massillon, resigned in August.

In a lawsuit filed Dec. 12, she alleges that while teaching at Jackson Memorial Middle School, she was instructed to address two students by their preferred pronouns and names. Feeling that doing so would violate both her Christian faith and “scientific understanding,” Geraghty approached principal Kacy Carter to discuss “a way to move forward consistent with her conscience and her professional obligation.” 

“But as soon as defendants found out that Ms. Geraghty had a religious basis for resisting their attempt to implement an orthodoxy, they forced her to resign,” the lawsuit reads.

55% of adults think
Jesus will return to Earth

A new Pew Research survey shows that more than half of all U.S. adults (55 percent), including three-quarters of Christians, say they believe Jesus “will return to Earth someday,” also known as the “second coming.”

Protestants in the evangelical (92 percent) and historically Black (86 percent) traditions are more likely than other Christians to say there will eventually be a second coming of Jesus. Roughly four-in-10 Americans either do not believe Jesus will return to Earth (25 percent) or say they do not believe in Jesus (16 percent).

Respondents who said they believe Jesus will return to Earth were also asked how certain they are that this will happen during their lifetime. One-in-ten Americans say they believe the second coming of Jesus will definitely or probably occur during their lifetime, 27 percent are not sure if Jesus will return in their lifetime, and 19 percent say the return of Jesus will definitely or probably not occur during their lifetime

Nonreligious voters lean heavily Democratic

Voters with no religious affiliation (“Nones”) supported Democratic candidates and abortion rights by staggering percentages in the 2022 midterm elections.

And they’re voting in large numbers. In 2022, 22 percent of voters claimed no religious affiliation, according to AP VoteCast, an expansive survey of more than 94,000 voters nationwide. They contributed to voting coalitions that gave Democrats victories in battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona.

The Nones voted for Democratic House candidates nationwide over Republicans by more than a 2-1 margin (65 percent to 31 percent), according to VoteCast. That echoes the 2020 presidential election, when Democrat Joe Biden took 72 percent of voters with no religious affiliation, while Republican Donald Trump took 25 percent, according to VoteCast.

In several bellwether races this year, the secular vote made its impact felt, according to AP VoteCast.

About four in five people with no religious affiliation voted against abortion restrictions in referendums in Michigan and Kentucky.

Between two-thirds and three-quarters of Nones supported Democratic candidates in statewide races in Arizona and Wisconsin.

About four in five people with no religion voted for Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s newest governor and senator, respectively, both Democrats.

Texas VA nurse sues to stop abortion services rule

The U.S. Veterans Affairs Department’s new rule requiring its medical centers to offer abortions and related counseling infringes health professionals’ religious liberties, a new federal lawsuit says.

Stephanie Carter, an Army vet and a nurse at a Temple, Texas, VA facility, sued the agency on Dec. 13 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. She’s seeking an injunction barring the VA from compelling her and her colleagues at the facility to participate in providing any abortion-related services.

This is the first case challenging the VA’s allowance of abortions at its health facilities in very limited circumstances. Under the rule, pregnant veterans and some of their direct family members can get abortions at a VA health facility if carrying the pregnancy to term threatens the patient’s life or health.

Carter said that her Christian beliefs prevent her from performing, prescribing, or counseling for abortions and from working in a facility that offers nonemergency abortion services. The VA rule doesn’t account for religious objections, and there’s currently no process for considering accommodation requests, she says.

OK AG: Religious charter schools legal

In an official legal opinion, Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor says a state law that prohibits religious entities from operating a public charter school likely violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and “therefore should not be enforced,” based on rulings from both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Official opinions issued by the attorney general are normally treated as legally binding unless a court declares otherwise.

The opinion opens the door for various religious entities, including churches, to operate public charter schools in Oklahoma. Public charter schools are open to all students, but no child is required to attend a charter school, unlike traditional public schools where attendance may be compulsory based on geographic proximity.

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