At this time of the year, perhaps more than any other, it becomes very apparent that we live in a multi faith world. Whether the shows of diversity are in public displays leading to debates on religious freedom or the variety of holiday wishes and celebratory rituals, December brings a very visible demonstration of the breadth of religious belief in the U.S. and, even, worldwide. With that spirit, we have collected a number of religious news stories that have been making headlines over the past few weeks.
* * *At a Dec. 11 meeting at the United Way of Greater Cleveland, the Ohio Department of Education hosted an information session on the state’s new Community Connectors program. Established by a legislative vote in the spring and then signed into law by Gov. John Kasich (R), the program aims to bring together community organizations and businesses with school systems in order to assist at-risk children and strengthen districts with high poverty and dropout rates. The underlying belief is that direct community involvement and mentorship will help children succeed in school and in life.
However, directly after the United Way meeting, the program drew criticism because of its alleged new focus on faith-based organizations. According to The Cleveland Plain Dealer:
Buddy Harris, a senior policy analyst for the Ohio Department of Education, told the gathering of church and non-profit representatives that each application must include a school district (or charter school) plus a business and a place of worship or faith-based organization in its partnership.
The original legislative bill, HB 483, did not include this requirement. According to the state’s website, the law reads, “Eligible school districts shall partner with members of the business community, civic organizations, or the faith-based community to provide sustainable career advising and mentoring services.” To date, the program’s promotional material also doesn’t suggest any religious requirement. However, according to news reports and Americans United (AU) the Governor only recently changed this detail.
If the news reports are correct and this new policy is in place, then, as noted by AU, “this is a flagrant violation of the First Amendment.” The organization goes on to suggest, ” … if he really wants to improve the lives of Ohio’s students, he can start by respecting their right to an educational environment free of religious coercion. ”
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As reported by The New York Times, the U.S. Senate approved, in a 62-35 vote, the appointment of Rabbi David Saperstein as Ambassador-at-Large, or head of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom. When Saperstein was nominated in July, Secretery of State John Kerry said, “Religious Freedom is human freedom. … When it comes to the work of protecting religious freedom, it is safe to say that David Saperstein represents the gold standard.”
Why is this particular appointment significant? Rabbi Saperstein is the first non-Christian to hold that particular office. His initial nomination happened during the buildup of tension and violence in Gaza. This suggests that the choice may have been a calculated political message or move. However, the Senate’s approval, which came Dec. 12, may also demonstrate something more significant about the U.S. cultural landscape. Judaism may be a monotheistic faith; but it is still a minority religion. How will having a member of a minority religion in a prominent position change U.S. religious freedom policy both nationally and internationally? Time will tell.
* * *In another religious freedom battle, U.S. Senate approved a “defense policy bill” that may allow a large cross to remain at the top of the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego, California. According to the L.A. Times, the legal battle over this cross has been on-going since 2006. Proponents claim that the bill will end the conversation because the Senate approved the sale of the property to private investors. Once sold, the cross can no longer be considered a “church-state violation.” However, opponents don’t agree and promise to continue the fight.
For Pagans and Heathens, religious freedom in the Military has always been a major concern. This month, AU released a response document called “Clear and Present Falsehoods: The Real State of Religious Freedom in the Military.” This publication mentions a number of religious freedom cases, including one in which a cross was “placed inside the Wiccan circle used by Wiccan cadets.”
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As this is a holiday season roundup, it would not be complete without a few stories on religious displays in the public square. Each year this particular conversation is reborn, ironically, with the erection of nativity scenes, menorahs, Fesivas poles, gigantic illuminated letter As and the like.
As is typical, Atheist organizations have been sponsoring billboards around the country to counter overt religiosity. For example, in Arkansas, American Atheists sponsored a billboard that reads “You KNOW it’s a Myth. This Season, Celebrate REASON.”
As we reported last week, The Satanic Temple takes part in this holiday tradition. Along with its Florida display, the organization is preparing one for the Michigan capitol. To be erected on Dec. 21, this particular holiday presentation is called a “Snaketivity Scene” and will contain a snake, a book and sign that reads “The greatest gift is knowledge.”
While most of this activity centers around conflict and debate, the Wisconsin legislature has chosen to take another more positive approach to holiday displays. Since 1998, it hosts a yearly “Interfaith Awareness Week,” during which representatives of organizations can sponsor an informational holiday display in its capitol’s rotunda. Circle Sanctuary has been part of this tradition for 16 years. This year was no exception.
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Do dogs go to heaven? After a Dec. 11 New York Times article, many Catholics believed that the long theological debate was finally settled. Dogs do go to heaven. However, The Times and other media outlets have since corrected their original articles saying that the Pope never made any statements about seeing our pets in eternity. In its correction, The Times admitted that it had not verified the quotes with the Vatican before publication.
* * *While that particular theological question may still be unanswered, another, far less theological one has been definitely cleared up. There are no Wiccans at Hogwarts. When a Harry Potter fan asked via Twitter if there were Jewish characters in the popular series, author J.K. Rowling tweeted back, “Anthony Goldstein, Ravenclaw, Jewish wizard.”
Apparently, this set off a discussion on the religious views represented by students at the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. In response to that debate, Rowling tweeted:
To everyone asking whether their religion/belief/non-belief system is represented at Hogwarts: the only people I never imagined there are Wiccans.*
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Finally, last night was the first night of Hanukah. Many Pagans, Polytheists and Heathens with Jewish heritage enjoy celebrating the Festival of Lights or simply spending time with their Jewish families. May those readers enjoy the warmth and light of the holiday.
* UPDATE 1:50pm EST: Rowling defended her tweets about Wicca. The Independent quoted her as saying, “It’s a different concept of magic to the one laid out in the books, so I don’t really see how they can co-exist.”