“Jewish organization shrinks for bigger impact; The American Jewish World Service, headed by Ruth Messinger, has a new strategic plan.” By Theresa Agovino. Crain’s New York Business. February 3, 2013. Former Manhattan Borough President and City Council member Ruth Messinger spent 20 years trying to improve the lives of New Yorkers. Her mission has expanded since she left the government after losing her mayoral bid in 1997. The 72-year-old is the head of the American Jewish World Service, an international development organization that strives to end poverty and support human rights. Under her leadership, its budget has ballooned more than tenfold to $56 million as it funds local grassroots organizations to work on causes from ending genocide in Sudan to rebuilding Haiti. Now the nonprofit is implementing a new strategic plan to bolster its lobbying efforts, reduce the number of countries where it works to 19 from 32 and cut back on the number of trips it sponsors for volunteers to work in developing countries.
“Obama’s new contraception rules try to fool Catholics.” By Michael Gerson. Opinion. Washington Post. February 4, 2013. The Obama administration’s latest revision of its contraceptive policy was welcomed by some religious people as a breakthrough, even a “miracle.” Upon reflection, it seems less like the parting of the Red Sea than a parlor trick. At issue is whether Obamacare’s broad mandate of insurance coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and abortifacients should apply to institutions with moral objections. For more than a year, the administration has struggled to clarify a set of regulations, while provoking 44 legal challenges. To the administration’s credit, it has now abandoned one particularly provocative definition of religious institutions that excluded organizations that employ and serve non-members. In fact, many religious institutions serve non-members precisely because their faith requires generosity to outsiders. But the outlines of the mandate remain essentially the same, offering different levels of religious liberty to churches and ministries. An exemption from the mandate still doesn’t reach much beyond the doors of a house of worship — covering only churches, associations of churches and religious orders. The accommodation for religious charities, colleges and hospitals is effectively unchanged from the last version. While these institutions aren’t required to pay directly for contraceptive coverage, they are forced to provide insurance that includes such coverage. It is a shell game useful only for those who want to deceive themselves. “The religious institutions are required by the government to give their workers an insurer,” says Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, “and that insurer is required by the government to give those workers abortive and contraceptive coverage, but somehow these religious employers are supposed to imagine that they’re not giving their workers access to abortive and contraceptive coverage.”
“Latest Birth-Control Offer ‘Falls Short’.” Wall Street Journal. February 7, 2013.
“Bishops Reject Birth Control Compromise.” New York Times. February 7, 2013.
“Catholic Bishops Reject Compromise On Contraceptives.” All Things Considered/National Public Radio. February 7, 2013.
“Hollywood Hot Shots, Scientology And A Story Worth The Risk In ‘Going Clear’; review of Lawrence Wright, Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.” Morning Edition/National Public Radio. February 6, 2013. In the 1970s, a young man named Paul Haggis was walking down a street in Ontario, Canada. He encountered a man peddling a book. “And he handed the book to Paul, and he said, ‘You’ve got a mind — this is the owner’s manual,’ ” journalist Lawrence Wright tells NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “And inside, there was a stamp saying ‘Church of Scientology,’ and Paul was intrigued, and he said, ‘Take me there.’ ” Haggis soon became a member of the Church of Scientology — and he’s a central character in Wright’s new book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief. Haggis moved to Hollywood, where the church’s deep penetration of the movie industry helped his career as a screenwriter. Eventually he went on to win Oscars for Crash and Million Dollar Baby. He also advanced in the church. He contributed to it, publicly defended it — and was finally allowed to read some of its deepest secrets. And he told Wright about a disturbing experience: He was admitted to a special, tightly secured room to read top-secret pages by L. Ron Hubbard, the science-fiction writer who founded the church. “And in there, he talks about Xenu, the galactic overlord who at one point had ruled the universe,” Wright says. “It was a universe actually very similar to ours but very overcrowded, and Xenu had to ‘depopulate’ the universe, so he brought in a number of people, ostensibly for tax audits, and froze them.” Haggis found this story of the universe to be “madness” — his word — but stayed in the Church of Scientology for years before finally leaving. The mystery of why so many people remain in the church was a major question that drove Wright to write his book.
“How Megan Fox Got the Holy Spirit; A charismatic movement with roots in Los Angeles long before Hollywood became a movie capital.” By G. Nick Street. Wall Street Journal. February 7, 2013. In an interview with Esquire that is generating a surprising amount of buzz—and not just because she appears on the magazine’s cover in her underwear—TV and film star Megan Fox talks about her Pentecostal upbringing and her experience of “getting the Holy Ghost.” Ms. Fox’s account of speaking in tongues is proving particularly buzz-worthy, prompting comment in Christian media as well as mainstream news outlets in the U.S. and abroad. Why the kerfuffle? Didn’t we get our fill of this a couple of years ago with similar descriptions by the Pentecostally raised singer Katy Perry? And what does it mean to speak in tongues?
“Pastor Apologizes to His Denomination for Role in Sandy Hook Interfaith Service.” By Sharon Otterman. New York Times. February 7, 2013. A Lutheran pastor who participated in an interfaith prayer service in Newtown, Conn., in the days after the Sandy Hook massacre has apologized after being criticized by the leader of his denomination for violating its prohibition against joint worship with other religions. The Rev. Rob Morris, a new pastor who lost one of the members of his congregation in the shooting, defended himself in an open letter published by the church, saying that before the tragedy, he had spent hours with his congregation educating them about the differences between Lutheran teaching “and the teachings of false religions such as Islam or Baha’i,” both of which had clergy members at the interfaith service. He also noted that, in his own prayer at the service, he had spoken about Jesus and quoted from the Bible. “I believed my participation to be, not an act of joint worship, but an act of community chaplaincy,” he wrote. But he also apologized. In the days after the interfaith service, criticism of Mr. Morris mounted within his denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a 2.3-million-member church that is more conservative theologically than the larger Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Missouri Synod bars joint worship with other religions, because, it says, participation could be seen as an endorsement of faiths that do not regard Jesus alone as savior or as a suggestion that differences between religions are not important.
“Amish Sect Leader Sentenced to 15 Years in Hair-Cutting Attacks.” New York Times. February 8, 2013. The leader of a dissident Amish sect was sentenced on Friday to 15 years in prison for a series of bizarre beard- and hair-cutting attacks on other Ohio Amish that drew national attention. Samuel Mullet Sr., 67, the leader, was sentenced in Federal District Court in Cleveland for coordinating assaults that prosecutors argued were motivated by religious intolerance. Fifteen of his followers, including six women, were given lesser sentences, ranging from one year and one day to seven years. The breakaway Amish were convicted last year of multiple counts of conspiracy and hate crimes, which carry harsher punishment than simple assault. Prosecutors had asked for a life sentence for Mr. Mullet. Defense lawyers claimed the government was blowing out of proportion personal vendettas that Mr. Mullet harbored against former followers and other critics, and thus did not deserve a long sentence. But in passing sentence Judge Dan Aaron Polster told Mr. Mullet and his co-defendants that they were being punished for depriving victims of a constitutional right, religious freedom, whose fruits they enjoyed themselves as Amish through exemptions from jury service and other laws. “Each of you has received the benefits of that First Amendment,” Judge Polster said. The series of attacks in 2011 spread fear through Amish communities in eastern Ohio. Followers of Mr. Mullet broke into homes, restrained men and women, and forcibly sheared their victims, sometimes with tools used to clip horse manes. For Amish, descendants of 18th-century German-speaking immigrants, long beards and flowing women’s hair represent religious devotion and cultural identity.
“Amish chief Samuel Mullet faces life in jail over beard attack; Prosecutors said the attacks constituted a hate crime.” Independent. February 8, 2013.
“Former L.A. church leader fired from post at San Francisco church; The Rev. John J. Hunter, who last fall was abruptly reassigned from L.A.’s storied First African Methodist Episcopal Church, has been fired from his post at Bethel AME Church in San Francisco.” By Angel Jennings. Los Angeles Times. February 9, 2013. The Rev. John J. Hunter, who last fall was abruptly reassigned from First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest black church in Los Angeles, has been fired from his post at a San Francisco church. “I hereby immediately relieve you of the pastoral charge of Bethel AME Church,” Bishop Larry T. Kirkland wrote in a letter to Hunter dated Friday. “You will have no further contact with that congregation in an official capacity.” Hunter could not immediately be reached for comment. In January, the judicial body of the African Methodist Episcopal Church denied Hunter’s petition to return to First AME, the storied black church in Los Angeles. Hunter was moved after a controversial eight-year tenure in L.A. that was clouded by a federal tax investigation, a sexual harassment lawsuit and the questionable use of $122,000 in church credit cards. Hunter, who was moved from First AME in October, challenged his reassignment to Bethel AME after that congregation rejected him. He maintains that his rights as a minister were violated, saying Kirkland moved him to a smaller church without the proper 90-day notice and without reason. The church’s governing book states that a “new appointment, when available, shall be comparable to or better than the previous one.” First AME has a congregation of 19,000; Bethel AME’s membership is 650. The nine members on the council — the denomination’s equivalent of the Supreme Court — ruled Feb. 1 that Hunter skipped steps in the judicial process by petitioning them first. They denied his appeal because Hunter did not follow the proper chain of command. Meanwhile, Hunter has filed a civil lawsuit against church leaders in San Francisco for physically barring him from taking the pulpit. The suit, which alleges assault, battery, libel and emotional distress, is the latest in Hunter’s public battle with members of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. The 55-year-old pastor is seeking unspecified restitution exceeding $25,000.