June 23, 2006

World News

Episcopalians Elect Female Bishop as Top Leader

BY DANIEL BURKE and KEVIN ECKSTROM                                                                           © 2006 Religion News Service

Episcopalians elected the bishop of Las Vegas, Katharine Jefferts Schori, as the church's top leader on June 18, making her the first woman to lead a national church in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Schori, 52, was elected in a closed conclave of bishops at the historic Trinity Church in downtown Columbus and was later confirmed by the lay and clergy delegates.

The Nevada bishop's election takes place nearly 30 years to the day after the Episcopal Church voted to ordain women. Only three of the 38 provinces within the Anglican Communion have ordained female bishops, though it is possible in about 11 others.

Conservatives here are already worried that Schori's election will elevate tensions between the American church and more conservative sister churches in the 77 million-member Anglican Communion.

Elected on the fifth ballot, Schori edged out Henry Parsley Jr., bishop of Alabama, 95-82, according to Jim Naughton, who is monitoring the convention for the Diocese of Washington.

Lay and clergy delegates later overwhelmingly confirmed her election, with nearly 90 percent approval. Speaking to those delegates, who thunderously applauded as she walked into the room, Schori thanked her fellow bishops and her family. "I am awed and honored and deeply privileged to have been elected," she said.

Schori, who hold a Ph.D. in oceanography and has been a priest for just 12 years, beat out six other candidates and was widely considered the dark horse in the race to lead the deeply divided church for the next nine years.

The Rev. Carole Cole Flanagan, vice president of the Episcopal Women's Caucus, said she was "delighted" by Schori's election. "Surely there will be mixed views, but there were mixed views when we began ordaining women 30 years ago, too," Flanagan said.

Schori succeeds Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, who has served since 1997. She will be formally installed at Washington National Cathedral in November.

The married mother of one is a relative unknown in the church, but a brief look at her public statements reveals she is a progressive, favoring blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples, and voting in support of the church's first openly gay bishop three years ago.

Conservative activists have already dismissed her credentials and asked whether her short tenure--she became a bishop in 2001--is "adequate for serious consideration" for the church's top job.

The Rev. David Anderson, president of the conservative Anglican American Council, said Sunday that Schori does not have enough pastoral or administrative experience for the job. "She'll be hard-pressed to find experience within herself to meet the significant demands of this office," Anderson said.

In a brief profile of Schori issued earlier this year, the AAC wrote that "like other candidates, she is clearly committed to a new consensus in the Communion that embraces progressive, revisionist theology."

Schori inherits a church that is badly torn by divisions over human sexuality, and one that is at odds with sister churches in the 77 million-member Anglican Communion.

In Seismic Shift, Presbyterians Make Room for Gay Clergy

                                                                                                    © 2006 Religion News Service

America's largest Presbyterian denomination, in a seismic shift on the role of gays and lesbians in the church, voted on June 20 to allow local and regional bodies to ordain gays to the church's ministries.

After nearly three hours of debate, delegates voted 298 to 221 to approve a complex proposal that allows local congregations and regional bodies known as presbyteries to bypass the church's current ban on "self-avowed practicing" gay clergy.

Current rules from 1996 that require "fidelity in marriage ... and chastity in singleness" will remain on the books, but local bodies can now allow exceptions to those standards if they wish. Those exceptions will still be subject to review by higher bodies.  The proposal came from a blue-ribbon task force that spent four years studying the issue. "This is not an `anything goes' proposal," said the Rev. Blair Monie, chairman of the committee that brought the proposal. Rather, he said, it was a way to hold the church together by relying on some of its oldest practices.

The Rev. Stacy Johnson, a member of the task force, said the report was "not about sexuality but about the church" and how it moves forward in the midst of conflict.

Opponents, meanwhile, said the new policy "changes everything" in the life of the church and was a "transitional point" on the march toward tossing out all current prohibitions on gay clergy.  The 2.3 million-member church has been debating the issue for nearly 30 years. This time, the debate was intense but polite and restrained -- and sometimes emotional.

"I am against homosexual ordination," said former moderator Marj Carpenter, her voice breaking. But she said she nevertheless supported the proposal. "I'm willing to compromise if it will get us back to being the church. I love this church, but please, let us get on."

The so-called "third way" proposal, by the 20-member Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church, revolves around a distinction between "standards" and "essentials." It would allow individuals who cannot abide by the standards to be ordained if local bodies do not find them in violation of the "essentials" required of new clergy.

In addition, the task force's proposal is being offered as a new "authoritative interpretation" of church policy that would immediately go into effect. Unlike previous attempts to rescind the gay clergy ban, this policy will not have to be ratified by the denomination's 173 regional presbyteries.

Opponents argued that it would lead to alienation from sister churches in Africa and Asia and could cause thousands of Korean members to withdraw.

Supporters, however, said the church could no longer exclude gays and lesbians from full participation. The task force was divided between supporters and opponents of gay ordination, but its proposal to the General Assembly had been adopted unanimously and widely circulated.

President Bush Signs into Law Tenfold Increase in Fines For Broadcast Indecency

                                                                                                                                                             © 2006 Baptist Press  

Broadcasters who transgress the federal government's indecency standards now will have to pay as much as $325,000 per violation.

President Bush signed into law June 15 legislation increasing by tenfold the maximum fine for indecency on television and radio. The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act increases the maximum fine that can be levied by the Federal Communications Commission from $32,500 to $325,000.

During the signing ceremony at the White House, Bush commended Congress for sending legislation to him that will "help American parents by making broadcast television and radio more family friendly."

"Parents are the first line of defense [in supervising what children watch and listen to], but broadcasters and the electronics industry must play a valuable role in protecting our children from obscene and indecent programming," the president told an audience that included pro-family advocates and members of Congress. "Unfortunately, in recent years, broadcast programming has too often pushed the bounds of decency."

Indecency complaints to the FCC have grown "from just hundreds per year to hundreds of thousands" since 2000, Bush said. "In other words, people are saying, 'We're tired of it, and we expect the government to do something about it.'"

A maximum fine of $32,500 "is meaningless" for some broadcasters, Bush said. "It's relatively painless for them when they violate decency standards. By allowing the FCC to levy stiffer and more meaningful fines on broadcasters who violate decency standards, this law will ensure that broadcasters take seriously their duty to keep the public airways free of obscene, profane and indecent material."

Supporters of the legislation hailed the law's enactment as an important victory in the effort to reduce broadcast indecency.

To read the complete story, click here.

Florida Governor Signs Tax-Exempt Law for Bible Theme Park

BY J. EDWARD MENDEZ                                                                                                        © 2006 Religion News Service

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has signed into law a bill that would grant theme parks that display, exhibit, illustrate and interpret biblical manuscripts the same tax-exempt status as museums.   The law is the product of a four-year legal battle involving the Holy Land Experience, a live-action biblical museum in Orlando, developed by Zion's Hope, a nonprofit Christian ministry that oversaw it for its first four years.

Orange County Property Appraiser Bill Donegan wanted the park to pay almost $1 million in back taxes since 2001, when it opened. Donegan refused to give it full tax exemption because he questioned the purpose of the museum.

"I think Holy Land itself is religious, but I'm not convinced that it serves a religious purpose like a church. I guess we're going to have to find out the definition of a church. When you charge $30 for admission, is that a church?" Bill Donegan told the Associated Press.

Last year an Orange County Circuit Court ruled that the entire park couldn't be taxed because it is used predominantly for religious purposes, but Donegan appealed the decision.

Bush signed the bill, sponsored by State Sen. Daniel Webster, on Friday (June 16). Donegan then backed off from the legal fight.

"We're delighted for that, we don't want to dwell on the past. I hope that we can develop a good relationship with (Mr.) Donegan," said Dan Hayden, interim president for the Holy Land Experience.

Guests of the Holy Land Experience walk through a 15-acre walled city that depicts Israel during the life of Jesus. There are geographical replicas of historical sites and theatrical renditions of biblical events. Most notably, the park is home to a scriptorium where the oldest artifact is an approximately 4,350-year-old votive nail on which ancient Babylonian worshippers scribbled prayers to their gods.

The new law was a victory for Liberty Counsel, a national religious law firm that offered free legal assistance to the Holy Land Experience.

"Orange County sought to impose its own view of religious activities," said Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel. "And had it won, every religious ministry would be subject to the changing views of county officials searching for more tax revenue."