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National religion briefs

December 26, 2009

Holiday display will feature
Einstein at Arkansas Capitol



LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A secular display celebrating the winter solstice and "freethinkers" such as Albert Einstein and Bill Gates can be placed at the state Capitol alongside a traditional Christian nativity scene, a federal judge says.

The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers sued after Secretary of State Charlie Daniels rejected its proposal, saying it wasn't consistent with the Capitol's other decorations and displays. The group asked for a quick hearing before the winter solstice, which is Dec. 21.

U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright granted an injunction Monday allowing the display to go up.

The group never wanted to remove the nativity display, said Tod Billings, president of the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. Billings said he hoped the display would go up Wednesday and that it would remain until the nativity scene came down after the holidays.

"We just wanted the freedom to be included in the holiday celebrations publicly, just like anybody else can do if they fill out the appropriate paperwork," Billings said.

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Natasha Naragon, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state's office, said that they respected the judge's decision and that they'll work with the group to erect the display.

Challenge to Fla. prison religious aid reinstated



TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - A humanist group can go ahead with its challenge against the Florida prison system's use of two faith-based organizations to provide substance abuse programs for inmates, a state appeal court ruled.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled the "no-aid" provision of the Florida Constitution prohibits spending taxpayer money on programs that use religious doctrine to carry out their work for the state.

The unanimous decision sends the lawsuit back to a trial judge to determine if the programs violate that ban. It was filed by the Council for Secular Humanism and two of its Tallahassee members, Richard and Elaine Hull.

Circuit Judge John C. Cooper of Tallahassee had rejected the challenge without taking any factual evidence. The appeal court found Cooper erred when he ruled that a similar 1st District decision in 2004 had applied only to schools.

"It is only after the facts are developed with respect to the purpose and effect of the faith-based programs which are the subject of this action that these arguments can be addressed definitively," District Judge William Van Nortwick wrote for the appeal court.

The district court refused to reinstate two other allegations in the lawsuit relating to the contracts themselves and a requirement for consultation with prison chaplains before inmates can participate in the programs.

Ryan Wiggins, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said the agency will review the ruling and confer with the Department of Corrections before deciding whether to appeal or take other legal steps.

Catholic officials seeking charter status
for church schools in Indianapolis



INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Catholic Church officials have applied to convert two inner-city Indianapolis elementary schools into taxpayer-supported charter schools, which would mean giving up their religious identities and education classes.

The Archdiocese of Indianapolis has subsidized St. Andrew & St. Rita Catholic Academy and St. Anthony School for years because low-income families sending children to the schools couldn't afford much tuition, church officials said.

A plan submitted to the city calls for a nonprofit organization to run the schools, which could receive more than $1 million in state funding in the first year. If city officials agreed, the charter schools would open next fall.

The nonprofit organization formed by the archdiocese to run the charter schools would have to ensure they had have a secular curriculum.

"We will always be about values-based education," Connie Zittnan, the current director of the schools, told The Indianapolis Star. "What we will not be able to do is to bring those values with a direct discussion of God."

Church officials intend to offer before- and after-school religious education programs to students on a voluntary basis. But crucifixes and religious statues will have to be removed from classrooms and hallways or be covered up.

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