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  •   Religious Freedom   •  

Joel Hunter Responds to Accusations of Islamist Association

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The Florida Family Association is calling Pastor Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor of Northland Church in Longwood, Fla., to the carpet for “partnering with Islamists to oppose an anti-Shariah bill in the Florida legislature.”

The Florida Family Association is claiming that Hunter is helping the Hamas-linked, Jihadi apologist, Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) to stop laws from being enacted that would prohibit courts from accepting Shariah law. The association also published Hunter’s personal email address and invited readers to contact him.

According to the Florida Family Association, if Florida courts accept provisions of Islamic Shariah law or other foreign laws and legal codes which are inconsistent with American laws, it will undermine public policies enacted by our representative form of government and change our value system.

Atif Fareed, a Muslim and former chairman of CAIR Florida, said Hunter, the spiritual advisor to President Obama, asked him to read the following statement:

“To my state senators: As a pastor of one of the largest churches in Florida I believe Senate Bill 58 will do more harm than good if enacted. Its effect will be to increase bias rather than protection. It seems to me to be a cure without a disease. Existing law and judicial precedent have proved sufficient to deal with any concerns addressed by this proposed law.

“Having confidence in both our constitution and the character of our judicial process, I agree with the America Bar Association, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Civil Liberties Union that this law and House Bill 351 will be detrimental rather than the good intended. As a conservative evangelical Christian it is unusual for me to side with the ACLU but I think objecting to unnecessary law is a conservative principle as well as a libertarian one. Indeed, not making laws unless they are absolutely necessary is at the core of our character as a country. Thank you for considering my views.”

David Caton, president of the Florida Family Association, said he could not wait until the committee meeting was over to inquire if Hunter actually authorized or requested Fareed to present this statement to Florida Senators.”

“I sent … email to Joel Hunter to which he affirmed yes in less than five minutes,” Caton said. “He must be really proud to align with the Council on American Islamic Relations.”

Charisma News asked Hunter about the issue. He told us the way it has been interpreted has misrepresented his position.

“I am not aligning myself with CAIR, the Muslim Brotherhood, or any other Muslim organization. I am not for Shariah or any other foreign law to compete with our Constitution. My response to a man who lives in our community (Mr. Fareed) was that I believe our present safeguards are more than capable of keeping those laws out,” Hunter says.

“My opinion is that SB 58 is an unnecessary law that increases bias and heightens animosity between Christians and Muslims—which makes respectful dialogue and sharing Jesus with them all the more challenging. I'm certainly not in favor of any foreign law that would take away our rights under the Constitution.”

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  •   Culture Wars, Religious Freedom   •  

How the Church Should Respond to Same Sex Marriage

Screen Shot 2012-06-11 at 2.49.38 PM Last month President Obama publicly acknowledged his support for same sex marriage in an interview with ABC News. Shortly before the interview, the president called Dr. Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland Church near Orlando and a spiritual adviser to the president, to tell him about his decision. Hunter told the president that he disagreed with his view on marriage, but the decision would not fracture their friendship.

I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Hunter and his wife in April at the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast. As we walked along the grounds of the White House and West Wing, I asked Dr. Hunter about his friendship with President Obama. He told me what he said to NBC News last week: “I love him and he’s a friend.” We also discussed how his church members have responded to their evangelical pastor being so close with a Democratic president. His response was both wise and full of grace.

So when news broke about President Obama’s “fully evolved” position on same sex marriage, I decided to contact Dr. Hunter about it. Specifically, I wanted to know what he was saying to his congregation about the matter, and how he thinks other Christians should react to the rapidly shifting cultural views on marriage. Once again, his thoughtful remarks struck me as both wise and gracious.

What are you telling people in your church about the President’s announcement last week that he supports same sex marriage?

First, it gives us a wonderful platform to reemphasize the definition of marriage as God has laid it out in Scripture. We are not free to redefine it once God has defined it. Secondly, I am saying we have to be careful not to enter into a culture war. We have gay people in our congregation. They are people made in the image of God, and we want them to come close to him in Christ and follow God. So we have to remember that this is a hurtful issue for many, many people and we have to be very respectful as we talk about it.

Third, we have to remember that this is a leadership issue. The church should not try to manage society. 1 Corinthians 5:12 says “what have we to do with judging outsiders?” Our business is the Church. We have to be careful not to expect people to follow the same values that Christians follow. Even though marriage is a sacred thing to us, that doesn’t mean it is to everybody. So as this conversation continues, we need to differentiate what is expected from a biblical, obedient Christian and what’s expected from someone who is acting from another worldview. They may have every right to make whatever legal arrangements they want for their relationships, but we have to make sure that the church is protected to do what it believes it is right and not violate its conscience.

Rather than fighting against same sex marriage, do you feel we should be working harder to protect religious liberty?

I think the conversation needs to be extended to include protecting religious liberty. Right now the conversation is only about the civil rights of gay people, but let’s also lift up the rights of those who want to practice their religion without being afraid of lawsuits. If gay marriage becomes civil law, then we need protections for the churches that choose not to marry gay couples. We need to know we will not be open to lawsuits. We do not want to be forced into something that would violate our conscience and our faith.

Was that part of your conversation with President Obama?

When the President called me, I told him that his support of gay marriage is going to be perceived by some Christians as a war on religion. I don’t agree with that, but we’re talking about perception here. I also told him there is an opportunity to lift up both sides--respect for gay people and respect for religious practices that limit the covenant of marriage.

How did the President respond?

He is there. The President is a Christian, and he gets it. He knows what we believe about traditional marriage, and he doesn’t want to violate religious conscience. But there is still a lot of conversation that needs to happen to see how this will actually work out. Until we hear statements and see policy that protects churches and religious liberty, then I’m not sure everyone will be reassured.

Are you concerned that this announcement will spark a new round of culture wars?

Yes, I am. It’s starting right now as people are beginning to organize a response, and given the history of some of these leaders it could become another culture war. But we need to be a third voice saying we don’t need to go there.

What advice do you give pastors who are scared to address marriage or gay rights issues because they’ve become so politicized?

I absolutely understand why pastors are reluctant. Some pastors live in fear of upsetting people because they don’t want to lose their jobs, but many of us are also concerned about dividing the congregation. But we still have to talk about God’s “Plan A” for marriage and raise up examples of exemplary marriages. We don’t have to approach this as a culture war and say the nation is going to hell in a hand basket. We can talk about the positive principles of Scripture without attacking those who disagree with us. I think more pastors feel equipped to do that.

What about critics who say the divorce rate within the church is doing more to harm marriage than anything else? Have we lost moral authority on this issue in the culture?

They certainly have a point, and they can point out our failings. But our platform will always be Scripture. We must stand on Scripture with an understanding that what it says is very difficult for people.


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  •   Pro Life: In the Womb, Religious Freedom   •  

A Bitter Pill?

Screen Shot 2012-02-10 at 4.07.57 PM Joel Hunter was an unlikely ally of Barack Obama’s in the 2008 election. The Christian evangelical, who leads a mega-church in central Florida, had backed fellow pastor Mike Huckabee in the Republican primary that year. At Obama’s inauguration, Hunter found himself sitting next to Muhammad Ali in the 12th row.

Obama’s outreach to the faithful during the 2008 campaign—unprecedented for a Democratic candidate—paid off. He did 8 percentage points better than 2004 nominee John Kerry had among voters who worship weekly or more, although he lost regular worshippers overall to Republican John McCain. With strong support from minorities, Obama beat McCain by 9 percentage points among Catholics (who favored George W. Bush over Kerry by 5 points in 2004) and made smaller inroads among evangelicals such as Hunter.

Those gains are now in jeopardy, according to Hunter and other religious leaders fuming over the Obama administration’s requirement that church-affiliated institutions such as hospitals, schools, and charities cover birth control in their employee health insurance plans.

“The boundaries of religious freedom and identity are being trespassed,” said Hunter, who still writes weekly devotions for Obama and visited the Oval Office last week; he said he keeps his spiritual guidance separate from any policy recommendations he funnels to the president. “I do think this will have political repercussions in the religious community,” Hunter added. “This has the potential to be a breaking point.”

Obama’s Republican challengers certainly hope so. Newt Gingrich has accused Obama of waging a “war against religion.” Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic who has put issues such as abortion and marriage at the center of his campaign, used his victory speech after the Missouri primary to accuse Obama of steamrolling the First Amendment.

Campaigning earlier this week in Colorado, front-runner Mitt Romney, said sharply, “We must have a president who is willing to protect America’s first right, a right to worship God.”

The issue is potentially advantageous for Romney, a Mormon who once held moderate positions on abortion and gay marriage, because it allows him to align himself with the social conservatives who have resisted his candidacy. (Both Gingrich and Democrats, however, have called Romney a hypocrite on the birth-control issue. As governor of Massachusetts, he enforced a rule requiring Catholic hospitals to provide emergency contraception to rape victims, after the Legislature overrode his veto of the measure.)

On Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner put the dispute at the center of his party’s agenda, taking to the House floor to condemn “an unambiguous attack on religious freedom in our country.” He vowed to overturn the provision stemming from Obama’s sweeping health care reform plan. The fight over that legislation has already sorely tested the president’s relationship with religious leaders, who feared that it would allow taxpayer dollars to cover abortion.

To the extent that Republicans succeed in framing the current debate as one over religious liberty, the controversy over the so-called conscience clause could damage Obama at the polls. A perceived threat to religious freedom could pull more-casual churchgoers, who typically lean Democratic, closer to regular churchgoers, who tend to vote Republican, said John Green, a University of Akron political-science professor who specializes in the intersection of religion and politics.

In 2008, exit polls showed that the more frequently white Catholic voters went to church, the less likely they were to favor Obama. He got the votes of only 41 percent of white Catholics who attended church weekly or more; 47 percent of those who attended a few times a month; and 54 percent of those who attended a few times a year or never.

The relationship of religion and politics could influence the outcome of the 2012 election in battleground states with large Catholic communities, including Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Green added. “The real problem for the Obama administration would be if the [birth-control] issue moved some of those less religious Catholics,” Green said. “The issue might also move the regular Mass-attending Catholics to vote even more Republican.”

But if Democrats win the message war and frame the issue as a matter of public policy that involves women’s health and access to contraception, Republicans may find themselves on the losing side of the argument. In a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, 52 percent of Catholic voters agreed that employee health plans should cover birth control. The Obama administration is also touting a Guttmacher Institute study that found 98 percent of Catholic women have used birth control.

“Obviously, this is not a war against the Catholic Church. I’m Catholic, and I don’t find that there’s a war against me at all,” said Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the former Maryland lieutenant governor and a member of one of the nation’s most prominent Catholic families. “This is about women’s health and protecting the rights of all citizens. If Republicans want to fight about contraception being available for women, I think they will be on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of women’s health.”

A Wall Street Journal column this week by three Democratic senators—Jeanne Sheehan of New Hampshire, Barbara Boxer of California, and Patty Murray of Washington—tied critics of Obama’s policy on contraceptive coverage to the decision by the Susan G. Komen Foundation to cut funding to Planned Parenthood. A massive public outcry forced the breast-cancer charity to reverse itself. “Once again,” the senators wrote, “they are trying to force their politics on women’s personal health care decisions.”

Young voters, women, and independents helped to elect Obama in 2008. If Republicans overreach on contraception, those voters will help offset any support the president loses from religiously devout voters, who lean Republican anyway. But if the GOP succeeds in wrapping the issue in the mantle of religious liberty, Obama will struggle to rebuild the diverse coalition that put him in the White House.

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  •   Religious Freedom   •  

Commission to Explore Whether Churches Should Be More Accountable to Government

Screen Shot 2011-09-15 at 2.43.12 PM In an effort to more clearly define and look into possible changes in legislation regarding tax breaks and compensations for churches and nonprofit groups, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) has appointed a trio of panels.

The ECFA announced last week that representatives from religious groups, the broader nonprofit sector and the legal community have been appointed to the panels that will work with the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations.

The commission was formed following a report issued by U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) in January that focused on the financial practices of six high-profile Christian ministries, ECFA said. Allegations included perceptions of excessive spending on high-end travel, accommodations, and property, according to a commission member.

After Grassley released the findings of his three-year inquiry, rather than seek legal action, the senator asked ECFA to lead an independent national review that includes making recommendations on accountability and policy issues affecting religious and other nonprofit organizations.

Florida pastor and one of President Obama’s spiritual advisers, Dr. Joel Hunter, who is a member of the ECFA commission, told The Christian Post that he would like to see the panels discover that new legislation is not necessary.

“We have been given the opportunity to gather this kind of information so that we could not just automatically go toward legislative resolutions, but rather we could do some self-examination and try to clarify what was reasonable and what was intended for religious exemptions by the IRS and by the customs we now have in the U.S.,” Hunter said.

“Part of this idea [of tax breaks and compensations] is that the churches and other non-profits contribute so much to the public well-being. They contribute so many services, and so much benefit that they more than make up for any exemptions and taxes that they have.”

The ECFA stated that the issues before the commission include whether:

churches should be more accountable to the federal government; legislation is needed to curb perceived abuses of the clergy housing allowance exclusion; the current prohibition against political campaign intervention by churches and other nonprofits should be repealed or modified; the rules for determining the reasonableness of nonprofit executive compensation should be tightened; penalties should be expanded for nonprofits and their leaders who engage in prohibited activities. Hunter said that the commission and panel studies should also include educating people on the positive aspects of giving faith-based groups and nonprofits certain tax breaks.

“Our responsibility is to continue to tell the story of just exactly how much churches, and mosques, and synagogues, and temples are providing in the way of goods and services to those in need in our communities,” he said. “The good things that they are providing would otherwise fall upon the government to provide. We would like people to clearly see that this is a wonderful investment.”

Hunter said he recognizes the potential for abuses, but believes much of allegations are about perceptions.

“There were some perceived violations, some perceived expenditures that people looked upon,” he said. “The lavish houses and jets and all of that kind of stuff that people reasonably look at and say, ‘Wait a minute, are we as taxpayers contributing to that kind of excess and is that right? Was that the intent of a reasonable exclusion (tax break)?’”

The ECFA Commission will also be receiving input from the Internal Revenue Service, town hall meetings and other informal channels. Two law firms will be providing independent technical analysis and research for the commission on a pro-bono basis.

According to ECFA President Dan Busby, a total of 66 members have been named to the panels by Commission Chairman Michael Batts. The three panels include one of Religious Sector Representatives, one of Nonprofit Sector Representatives, made up of 18 individuals, and one of Legal Experts.

Ultimately, Hunter said the panels will make “an effort to put in reasonable boundaries and put in some self-correcting measures that will hopefully avoid legislation.”

“In the end, there may be a mix of self-policing and some necessary legislation. We do not know that yet. It would be preferable to avoid legislation, but we are not that far along the process, yet,” he said.

Alex Murashko Christian Post Reporter


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  •   Religious Freedom   •  

WH Spiritual Adviser: Mayor's Decision to Forbid Prayer at 9/11 Ceremony Un-American

Screen Shot 2011-09-02 at 9.46.21 AM The decision by NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's to exclude any prayers from clergy at Ground Zero in the upcoming 10th anniversary commemoration of the 9/11 attacks is being categorized as un-American by an evangelical leader and spiritual adviser to President Obama.

Florida Pastor Joel C. Hunter, who also serves as an executive board member for both global and national evangelical associations, said Christians should speak out or protest the decision because the importance of faith in the United States is being neglected.

Bloomberg stirred much controversy recently when he stated, "Everybody would like to participate, and the bottom line is everybody cannot participate. There isn't room. There isn't time. And in some cases, it's just not appropriate."

Hunter told The Christian Post, “The problem with this is, because of his singular decision, this ceremony isn’t really going to be representative of America. It’s going to be exclusionary, secularist only, and we are one of the most religious countries in the world. So, the bottom line is, this is not how we were founded. This is not who we are.”

The pastor of Northland church continued, “This is a national time of mourning and healing. I think it is particularly offensive to explicitly exclude any religious expression.”

Hunter said the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an “event that changed the face and the countenance of our nation.” He said he is hoping the 10th-anniversary memorial service will be a time when everyone comes together.

“Our faith is at the heart of our identity,” he said. “I think that Christians should speak out and give some sort of reasonable protest because I do think that, in moments like this, it's especially important to include the perspective of faith, and this is a national day. This is something all of us are involved in and the separation of church and state does not equal expunging all religion from public square activities.That just simply is not what it means.”

Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy group, also disagrees with the decision, citing a recent Barna Group study that shows that 61 percent of New York-area residents agree strongly that religious faith is very important to them.

"In a city where the most residents in recent memory now cite religious faith as strongly important, New York is tone-deaf to exclude all religion when remembering the slaughter of over 3000 innocents,” said Tooley in a statement released by IRD Thursday. "To exclude clergy even at a memorial service implies that religion is not welcome in the public square, even in mourning.”

Tooley added, "From presidential inaugurals to opening Congress, to countless civic events routinely in every community across America, clergy and prayers have been a regular part of public life for years. The exclusion of both clergy and prayers is deeply at odds with America's robust religious life and even with the beliefs of most New Yorkers.”

Hunter told CP that he has recently talked with members of the White House faith-based initiative advisory committee, which confirmed that President Obama will be giving a speech from the Washington National Cathedral the evening of the 9/11 commemoration.

Although he said he has not seen the President’s comments planned for the evening, Hunter believes that the “setting alone” shows that Obama will be including a faith perspective.

Alex Murashko Christian Post Reporter


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  •   Religious Freedom   •  

Should Religion Be Excluded From 9/11 Ceremonies?

Prayer and religious leaders have been left out of New York City’s official ceremonies observing the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Dr. Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, and John Kieffer, Atheists of Florida, have a respectful discussion on the issue.

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  •   Religious Freedom   •  

Excluding Religion at 9/11 Ceremony: Official Statement From Dr. Joel C. Hunter

“Most people, who call America home, are people of faith. Why would a public event of national remembrance and healing intentionally omit that which would be the greatest consolation to most people? Do you remember our nation’s first response to 9/11? Our nation’s churches were full to overflowing! And entire communities of faith were engaged in responding to the needs that resulted from the tragedy. Are the 9/11 ceremonies a reflection of government officials or of the people they are supposed to represent?”

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  •   Religious Freedom   •  

WASHINGTON POST: "NY Marriage Equality Bill Must Exempt Religious Institutions"

A bill legalizing same-sex marriage for couples in New York State is at a standstill over the issue of exemptions for religious organizations and individuals. The reach of these religious protections is wide-ranging -from whether Catholic adoption agencies may reject same-sex couples, to the right of religious caterers to refuse services for gay weddings. In New York State’s Marriage Equality Act, should there be exemptions for religion? What should happen when equal rights for gay citizens and the right to religious free exercise clash?

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THE WASHINGTON POST ASKS: A bill legalizing same-sex marriage for couples in New York State is at a standstill over the issue of exemptions for religious organizations and individuals. The reach of these religious protections is wide-ranging -from whether Catholic adoption agencies may reject same-sex couples, to the right of religious caterers to refuse services for gay weddings. In New York State’s Marriage Equality Act, should there be exemptions for religion? What should happen when equal rights for gay citizens and the right to religious free exercise clash? READ DR. HUNTER'S RESPONSE.

Click to read more "On Faith" posts from Dr. Hunter

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  •   Interfaith Dialogue, Religious Freedom   •  

Unrest in Egypt Stirs Fear and Hope

Screen shot 2011-02-02 at 3.46.53 PM With attacks on Christians already increasing in the Middle East, the populist uprising in Egypt has triggered fears among some that the region's largest non-Muslim population - Egypt's 7 million Coptic Christians - could be at risk.

Copt leaders in the United States said they are terrified that a new Egyptian government with a strong Islamic fundamentalist bent would persecute Christians. They are quietly lobbying the Obama administration to do more to protect Christians in Muslim countries and are holding prayer vigils and fasts such as one that ends Wednesday evening at Copt churches around the country, including four in the Washington area.

"The current situation for the Copts stinks, but [longtime Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak is the best of the worst for us," said the Rev. Paul Girguis of St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in Fairfax County, which has about 3,000 members. "If Muslim extremists take over, the focus will be extreme persecution against Copts. Some people even predict genocide."

Some major U.S. Christian figures, including well-known evangelical leaders and representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, declined to publicly discuss the situation in Egypt, saying they wanted to avoid bringing dangerous attention to the country's Christians by appearing to complain or to advocate for some particular political outcome.

Their trepidation stems from repeated attacks on churches in Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled in recent years, and from the New Year's Day bombing of a Coptic church in Egypt that killed almost two dozen worshipers and wounded nearly 100. The Coptic church is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world and is based in Egypt.

"Egypt is the bellwether because its Christian community is so large and is the strongest in the Middle East," said Paul Marshall, a global religious freedom expert and a fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. "What happens to Christians in Egypt is very significant. Everyone is watching."

But not all American faith leaders are bracing for the worst. Joel Hunter, an evangelical pastor of a Florida megachurch and a frequent adviser to President Obama, said he's hearing a lot of optimism from Egyptian Christians who believe the uprising will lead to more freedom and religious liberty.

Many younger Christians in the United States also see the protests as something to celebrate, Hunter said, and older, more politically conservative Christians tend to be more skeptical of Islam generally and are worried about how a new Egyptian government will treat Israel.

So far, the protests have focused on jobs, free speech and democratic elections, not religion, so it's unclear what the end of Mubarak's rule would mean for religious minorities. But in recent years, Iraq has lost about half its historical Christian population because of persecution, and Christians have been leaving Iran and Lebanon in lesser numbers.

After last month's bombing of the Coptic church in Alexandria, Pope Benedict XVI publicly urged the Egyptian government and other leaders in the region to protect religious minorities. Egypt's foreign ministry spokesman said the pope's comments were "an unacceptable interference" in the country's internal affairs, and Egypt withdrew its ambassador to the Vatican in response.

Some U.S. Christian leaders said the situation in Egypt might put the issue of religious persecution abroad back on the radar of American Christians. A decade ago the freedom of Christians to worship in places such as Sudan was a top agenda item for American Christians, evangelicals in particular. But experts said this week that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have absorbed people's attention.

At a congressional hearing last month about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, Christian leaders urged the administration to lean harder on Egypt's leaders to investigate violence against religious minorities and to lay out a clear strategy in Iraq for their protection.

A 2009 survey by the nonprofit Pew Forum measured governmental and societal restrictions on religion and found that a number of the world's least tolerant countries are Muslim-majority. The list included Iran, Egypt, Indonesia and Pakistan, as well as India, which is majority Hindu. Concerns include bans on public preaching and conversion and the lack of prosecution for religion-based violence.

Some advocates for religious freedom note that moderate Muslims and non-majority Muslims also suffer attacks and that the problem is extremism, not Islam.

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  •   Interfaith Dialogue, Religious Freedom   •  

Hearing over Tennessee mosque puts Islam on trial

Forbes article MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- Islam is suddenly on trial in a booming Nashville suburb, where opponents of a new mosque have spent six days in court trying to link it to what they claim is a conspiracy to take over America by imposing restrictive religious rule.

The hearing is supposed to be about whether Rutherford County officials violated Tennessee's open meetings law when they approved the mosque's site plan. Instead, plaintiff's attorney Joe Brandon Jr. has used it as a forum to question whether the world's second-biggest faith even qualifies as a religion, and to push a theory that American Muslims want to replace the Constitution with extremist Islamic law.

"Do you want to know about a direct connection between the Islamic Center and Shariah law, a.k.a. terrorism?" Brandon asked one witness in a typical line of questioning.

Brandon has repeatedly conflated a moderate version of Shariah with its most extreme manifestations, suggesting that all Muslims must adhere to those interpretations.

At one point, he asked whether Rutherford County Commissioner Gary Farley supported hanging a whip in his house as a warning to his wife and then beating her with it, something Brandon claimed was part of "Shariah religion."

The commissioner protested that he would never beat his wife.

County attorney Jim Cope objected to the question, saying, "This is a circus." The rhetoric has conjured up comparisons to another culture clash that played out in a Tennessee courtroom a hundred miles and nearly a century away from Murfreesboro, a college city of 100,000 that is among the fastest-growing communities in the country. In 1925, the world watched as evolution came under attack at the Scopes monkey trial in Dayton, Tenn.

Chancellor Robert Corlew has consistently given the plaintiffs leeway to present testimony by nonexperts and documents that they cannot prove are legitimate, saying he reserves the right to strike things from the record later.

Corlew, who holds an elected office, has given little explanation for why he has allowed the testimony to stray so far afield.

Since it is not a jury trial, the judge can ultimately disregard anything he deems irrelevant. Several attorneys suggested he may want the plaintiffs, three residents who object to how the mosque came about, to feel they were able to have their say.

That could explain why Corlew has allowed Brandon to repeatedly question witnesses about whether Islam is a legitimate religion - even after the Department of Justicestepped in with a brief stating that it was.

When Farley, the commissioner, told Brandon the federal government defined Islam as a religion, Brandon responded, "Are you one of those people who believes everything the government says? Are you aware the government once said it was OK to own slaves?"

Other faiths have risen to the defense of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. The newly formed Interfaith Coalition on Mosques, which is composed of prominent Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Southern Baptists and other Protestants, has filed a brief in the case.

It's good for the mosque's opponents to get their day in court - testimony is to resume Friday - said the Rev. Joel Hunter, an evanglical megachurch pastor and coalition member.

But it's "really out there" to question whether Islam is a religion, said Hunter, who leads a Longwood, Fla., congregation called Northland, A Church Distributed.

Seeking to prove that the mosque has terrorist leanings, witnesses have pointed out that board member Mosaad Rowash previously had pro-Hamas postings on his MySpace page, something the mosque's leaders have not denied. The U.S. government considers Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic political party with an armed wing that has attacked Israel, a terrorist organization.

The political views of Rowash - who hasn't been called to testify and hasn't commented publicly - and other board members are "totally irrelevant," said Deborah Lauter, the director of civil rights for the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, which sponsors the interfaith coalition.

If all of the members of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro were public cheerleaders for Hamas, it would still be illegal to discriminate against them because the First Amendment protects freedom of worship, she said.

Even the group that provided the information on Rowash, the Washington-based Investigative Project on Terrorism, doesn't claim that the MySpace postings prove anything about the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro or its members.

Managing director Ray Locker said the Washington group provided the information about Rowash to a Tennessee resident who sent an inquiry about the mosque. He said how such information is used is beyond his group's control.

"We don't consider all Muslims to be terrorists," he said. "The vast majority of American Muslims just want to worship freely, just like members of other religions."

That wasn't the message of witness Frank Gaffney, the president and founder of the Washington-based Center for Security Policy and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

While acknowledging he was not an expert on Shariah law, Gaffney testified that Shariah, and by extension the new mosque, poses a threat to America.

Shariah isn't really law, at least not law as a universally recognized, codified body of rules and rights, the way Americans have come to know it. Shariah is a set of core principles that most Muslims recognize as well as a series of rulings from religious scholars.

It's some of those rulings, such as stoning a woman to death for committing adultery, that many non-Muslim Americans find reprehensible. But many Muslims, in America and around the world, are equally horrified by them, said Mohammad Fadel, an assistant professor of law at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and an expert on Islamic law.

The mosque project has had problems outside court as well. A sign at the construction site was spray-painted with the words "Not Welcome" and torn in half, and federal investigators have offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in what they say was the arson of a dump truck on the grounds.

Hunter, the Florida pastor, said he studied American history in college and knows that what is happening to Muslims today has happened to other groups in the past.

"Every minority - and Islam is very much a minority in this country right now - has had to struggle for equal rights," he said. "Islam is facing that now and we will not rest until they have equal rights with other religions."


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