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Thursday, February 28, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor guilty of raping girls in congregation

A pastor described by police as charismatic and controlling pleaded guilty Wednesday to numerous counts of child rape and molestation involving five young girls in Kitsap County.

Robbin Leeroy Harper, 60, leader of The Church, faces more than 26 years in prison, though prosecutors and his own lawyer have agreed to recommend a 23-year term when Harper is sentenced April 9.

"We're happy with this," said Brenda, the mother of one victim, who asked that her last name not be published in order to shield her daughter's identity. "Everybody is relieved. My daughter is happy about it, too."

The young woman, now 20, called police last fall to report that Harper had been molesting her since she was 12. He told the pre-teen -- as well as 7- and 8-year-old victims -- that he was showing them pornographic material and teaching them to perform oral sex on him as preparation for marriage, according to court documents.

"I'm not really about revenge," said Brenda, thinking about her daughter. "He's going to have to stand before God for what he's done. It's just been really hard."

According to interviews with police and former members of The Church, Harper dictated everything -- from where congregants could work to the people they married to the type of cars they drove.

Brenda agreed, saying that she and her husband had left the group, which worshipped in a compound in South Colby guarded by a fence and unidentifiable from the road, because Harper was "controlling our lives."

However, their daughter and son remained, becoming ever more entwined, to the point at which the pastor and his wife became the teens' "spiritual mom and dad, and we kind of lost our authority over them," Brenda said.

At least 10 women and young girls have come forward with sexual abuse accusations since Harper was charged in November.

Deputy Prosecutor Kelly Montgomery was stunned at the hold Harper had over his congregation.

"It is amazing to me how much power someone can wield and use to take advantage of someone else," she said. "Whether they're pastors or police officers or priests, it just cautions all of us to be on alert with our kids. It can happen under your nose."

Harper's attorney, Thomas Weaver, said his client had never planned to stand trial.

"He had every intention, from the beginning, of taking responsibility for his actions," Weaver said.

Let us bow our heads in thanks for atheists

By Linda Stanton

The re-awakening of atheism in America is going to make for some very interesting times. Leaders of the Christian Right have spent years trying to cast themselves as the voiceless victims in a secular society, but the scapegoating is over. (Want to talk marginalized? How many atheists have there ever been in Congress or the White House?)

Nonbelievers know a lot about Christianity and Judaism, most having been raised in religious families. Believers, however, are somewhat less clued-in about atheists. Here are a few simple truths about who they are, and aren’t.

Atheists are well-behaved. Atheists seem to play well with others overall. They’re not in the news for getting caught doing things they tell others not to do. Most co-exist peacefully with believing family and friends. They pay taxes.

Atheists don’t start wars on behalf of atheism. They do join the military, however, and contrary to the cliché, they are found in foxholes. In fact, there is a lawsuit now against Defense Secretary Robert Gates and a major who harassed a group of “foxhole atheists” who simply wished to exercise their freedom of/from religion while serving their country in the Middle East.

Atheists have a thing for the American Constitution, particularly the First Amendment that separates church and state. They are secularists who support a government free from influence by any religion. They’re not anti-religious but nonreligious.

So when people like Mike Huckabee announce they want to “take this nation back for Christ” and make the Constitution fit the word of God, atheists worry, and feel that everyone else would be wise to worry along with them.

Atheists don’t take up much space. In fact, they only comprise 0.4 percent of the U.S. population, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, conducted through the Graduate Center at CUNY. (Agnostics would add 0.5 percent, the nonreligious 14.1 percent more.)

A total of 900,000 people isn’t even enough to fill 10 football stadiums, but evangelical leaders insist the godless are behind the decline of a whole nation. Uh, okay.

Atheists make good neighbors. Chances are, if you lived next door to an atheist, you might never know it. Atheists aren’t known for going door-to-door or shore-to-shore to un-convert people. They will help you even though there’s no heavenly reward in it for them.

Atheists will not infringe upon your life uninvited. On the other hand, you have to wonder about the neighborliness of certain believers when you see, for example, the miracle of the multiplying churches and neighborhood-munching mega-churches.

Thanks to the Religious Land Use law, passed in 2000, it’s lots easier now for religious groups to build more tax-exempt houses of worship, often against the wishes of neighborhoods which they burden financially and environmentally.

Atheists are lousy fundraisers. If you really want to raise a ton of money, oh, say on a weekly basis, don’t ask an atheist. Go to the folks with the know-how.

Televangelists raise almost $100 billion a year. In fact, they are so good at talking money out of people’s purses and bank accounts that six major Christian ministries are under investigation by the Senate Finance Committee.

These prosperity preachers tell their followers that God wants all of them to be well and be rich. (Serendipitously, God wants the preachers to have fancy cars, huge houses and the occasional Learjet.)

Atheists are the quiet type. Religionists have counted on atheists’ need for self-protection, but things are changing. Witness the popularity of Christopher Hitchens’ insightful book, god is not Great, the movie version of “The Golden Compass,” the mainstream media interest in the nonbelievers’ demographic.

There’s a new dialogue beginning between mainline believers and atheists, and among atheists themselves. While militant New Atheists fight on intellectual turf to replace dogma with rational thinking, humanists encourage believers and nonbelievers to get the moral work of peace, social justice and saving the environment done together.

Right-wing Christianity shook the atheist community out of its complacency with its relentless rhetorical badgering and attempts to co-opt the country. A missing piece of the real picture of America is finally being restored. Amen to that.

Linda Staten is a professional writer and former college instructor of ethics and comparative religion.


Monday, February 25, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor convicted of molesting foster child

A Decatur pastor faces at least 25 years in prison after being convicted of aggravated sexual battery and child molestation of his 15-year-old foster child, authorities said.

DeKalb County prosecutors contend Bishop Frederick Kelley, who headed Greater New Macedonia Church of God in Christ, had a history of child molestation and rape involving family members going back 35 years.

Kelley has vehemently proclaimed his innocence.

He was in the DeKalb jail Sunday awaiting a sentencing date after a jury found him guilty Friday of two counts of sexual battery and four counts of child molestation.

The minimum sentence is 25 years. The jury acquitted him of rape.

Kelley was arrested in January 2007 on charges of rape and molestation involving a 15-year-old foster girl in his house.

The pastor proclaimed his innocence in a TV news broadcast.

The newscast prompted three of his relatives to tell police that he molested or raped them years before, said Peter Boehm, the DeKalb prosecutor who handled the case.

"They had thought he stopped — or 'hoped,' I guess, is the better way to say it," Boehm said.

Attempts to reach the Kelley family for comment were unsuccessful Sunday.

Boehm introduced four other child molestation cases, involving Kelley's family members and another foster child, during the eight-day trial in Superior Court that ended Friday.

The first case involved a family member who was 12 years old when the incident allegedly occurred in 1972, Boehm said.

The woman testified at the trial that she awoke one night and found Kelley on top of her. She shoved him off, and Kelley "pretended to be sleepwalking," Boehm said.

Another family member testified that the pastor impregnated her in 1979, when she was 15.

DeKalb prosecutor Boehm alleges that in 1993, Kelley molested the daughter of the first victim.

Kelley eventually targeted foster children he and his wife supported, Boehm said.

Besides the 15-year-old who filed the charges for which Kelley was prosecuted, another foster daughter, age 14, testified the defendant inappropriately touched her when he came into her bedroom one night in 2006 but claimed to be "praying over her."

Kelley's wife testified that her husband was guilty only of an adulterous affair with the girl who became pregnant in 1979.

The Kelleys raised the baby he fathered as their own child, Boehm said.

That affair was the only sexual misconduct Kelley and his wife acknowledged, Boehm said.

"They denied all the others," he said.


Sunday, February 24, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Is Barak Obama the Antichrist?

Some think so! See

Here's what an article in the New York Sun had to say:

Let us start by saying that hope is good, political involvement is to be applauded, and young people are not all shallow sheep, flocking to the latest hip thing, be it a tattoo, tongue stud, iPod, or, ahem, presidential candidate.

Okay, so now I can ask: Is the Obama campaign becoming a cult?

It's hard not to sense something a little strange going on, considering the nearly unprecedented swell of love and fervor the man is inspiring. Contributions are pouring in. Endorsements are raining down. Even people are falling down: At six of Mr. Obama's rallies, people have fainted.

That's just not what happens with most campaigns.

"I would not say that Obama fits the pattern of a cult leader," a religious studies professor at the University of Denver, Carl Raschke, said. "But there is a very cult-like situation: a population longing for absolute certainty and truth [that] is incapable of taking control of their own lives and wants someone to do that for them — a Magic Man." An unscrupulous leader would take advantage of his Magic Man status, the professor noted. Mr. Obama isn't doing that — but he sure is riding the wave.

Over at the International Cultic Studies Association, executive director Michael Langone said he agrees that attracting this kind of ardor was never Mr. Obama's intent. Nonetheless, the rookie senator is providing the perfect Petri dish for cult cultivation: a feel-good message of hope and change that never gets too specific.

"A certain amount of ambiguity is needed because then people can project their idiosyncratic visions onto that" figure, Mr. Langone said. When that happens, the candidate becomes a Rorschach Test — people see in him what they want to see, "and they may think they share the same specifics, but they don't. What they're really sharing is an emotional experience, like a revival meeting," Mr. Langone said.

You don't hear a lot of policy details at a revival meeting, which is one reason Senator Clinton's campaign seems so hopelessly earthbound. It's tough to be charismatic when you're talking insurance rates per thousand. On the other hand, it's tough to be disliked when you're telling people, "We are the change that we seek" — self-help language strikingly similar to the language used in large group awareness training sessions, according to Mr. Langone. "She's perspiration, he's inspiration" is how the past chairwoman of the Public Relations Society of America, Rhoda Weiss, summed up the candidates' differences.

Lately that inspiration is reaching ever weirder heights. People at Obama rallies have been saying things like, "He changed my life." On CNBC, "Hardball" host Chris Matthews told viewers that when he heard Obama speak, "I felt this thrill going up my leg."

Better than something going down his leg, I guess. "Barack makes people feel good," Lisa Giassa, a 30-something in New Jersey, said. "He's inspiring."

Feel good inspiration. No wonder he's got so many groupies ... er ... fans. And yet, the other characteristic shared by every cult?

Elitism. Cult members think they've seen the light and everyone else is sadly unevolved.

Those of us out here in not-yet-swept-off-our-feet land are feeling that force against us. It's gotten to the point where, if the earth doesn't move when you watch that "Yes We Can" video — the one watched by more than 5 million people in three weeks, the one in gorgeous black and white, making Mr. Obama look like he's already a part of history — you're missing the human decency gene. "People look at him and say, 'Oh, he's our savior,' so I hesitate to say in front of other people that I don't get that great, warm feeling when I look at him," my friend Marla confessed the other night in her kitchen.

It was such a relief to find another cult member. The cult of the "He's smart, he's nice, but I'm not convinced he's the Messiah" voter.

So at least there are two of us.

What do you think?

Benny Hinn leaves Australia $800K richer

PROSPEROUS pastor Benny Hinn flew into Brisbane a multimillionaire. He left, 28 hours and three shows later, an estimated $800,000 richer.

The Queensland capital was a goldmine for the flamboyant televangelist who left with cash, cheques and the bank account and credit card details of more than 50,000 Australians fans.

Some attendees, who travelled from as far away as Hong Kong and Perth, handed over gold earrings and wedding rings instead of cash.

An Australian Taxation Office spokeswoman said Pastor Hinn's Australian haul – part of an estimated $110 million donated to the World Healing Centre Church each year – was seen as a "love offering".

"The tax office is unable to comment on individual tax matters," the spokeswoman said.

"However gifts received by churches aren't usually tax-exempt unless they're given in a personal capacity. It's a very complicated issue."

An Australian Customs Service spokeswoman said Pastor Hinn's visa allowed him to leave the country two hours after his 3pm show on February 16.

He travelled aboard his $36 million Gulfstream jet to Auckland, part of a 27-stop world tour expected to generate more than $10 million.

The 105,000 Australians who attended Pastor Hinn's shows in 1998 were believed to have donated more than $1 million.

Brisbane attendees at his February 15 and 16 shows were urged to give as much as $10,000 each.

Conservative estimates place the Australian donations, minus merchandise sales, at $800,000.

Pastor Hinn says he is accountable to God and authorities which oversee not-for-profit organisations.

But on November 6, the US Senate Committee on Finance announced he would be investigated.

Senator Chuck Grassley said he believed Hinn, and other wealthy pastors, had experienced personal gain through tax-exempt work.

It was believed Pastor Hinn had profited from financial donations.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Dr. Marlene Winell on CNN talking about the recent murder in Colorado

Dr. Winell discusses with Rich Sanchez of "Out in the Open" the shooting attack on New Life Church in Colorado Springs by Matthew Murray. She says many are hurt and angry about religious abuse, because some churches teach toxic ideas and are all about conformity and fear.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

IRS Target Wiley Drake Asks Followers To Engage In Imprecatory Prayers Against "Americans United" Staff Members

Controversial Southern Baptist Pastor Wiley Drake has again urged his followers to pray for the deaths of staff members at Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Last August, Americans United filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service about Drake’s use of church letterhead and a church-based radio program to endorse presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Federal tax law forbids tax-exempt groups from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.

In a Feb. 5 letter, the IRS notified Drake that his First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park is being investigated.

In response, Drake issued a Feb. 14 e-mail and website appeal to followers to engage in “imprecatory prayers” (curses) against Americans United and three of its staff members.

Said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, “We deplore Pastor Drake’s reckless and repugnant antics. Introducing this kind of religious extremism into American life is reprehensible.

“We have asked the IRS to investigate what we believe to be Drake’s violation of federal tax law,” Lynn continued. “If Drake thinks he is innocent, he has more than adequate legal representation, and there is ample opportunity to make his case.

“Trying to turn God into some sort of heavenly hit man is repugnant,” Lynn concluded. “There is more than a whiff of the Taliban in this action”

Wrote Drake, “In light of the recent attack from the enemies of God I ask the children of God to go into action with Imprecatory Prayer. Especially against Americans United for Separation of Church and State…. Specifically target Joe Conn or Jeremy Learing [sic] and their leader Rev. Barry Lynn. They are those who lead the attack.”

Drake directed his followers to Psalms 109 (as well as Psalms 55, 58, 68, 69 and 83) for examples of imprecatory prayers.

Verses from those texts ask God to bring death and destruction to those targeted.

“Let his days be few; and let another take his office,” says one passage. “Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg.”

Another passage says, “Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell.”

Drake waged a similar campaign last year after Americans United filed its complaint against him with the IRS. Religious leaders from a wide variety of faiths repudiated the pastor’s tactic.

Drake is a prominent pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. He recently completed a term as second vice president of the group, its third highest post. He currently is running for president of the denomination, which became increasingly political after a fundamentalist takeover in the 1980s.


Monday, February 18, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Worshippers praise youth pastor for confessing to 1994 murder

HOUSTON — A youth minister who confessed to the unsolved 1994 killing of a convenience store clerk is being widely forgiven by worshipers at his former church who say they admire his courage to finally surrender to police.

Calvin Wayne Inman, 29, remains jailed without bond since being charged Wednesday with capital murder in the stabbing death of a clerk during an alleged plot to steal cash and cigarettes. He was 16 at the time.

In the first service Sunday at the 800-member Elim Church since Inman was arrested last week, congregants praised the recently ordained minister as a born-again role model taking responsibility for his sin.

"He's a hero, really," said Kelley Graham, 24. "I don't know how many people would do what he did. The Bible says you just need to confess to God. Calvin took an extra step."

Ordained as a minister in November, Inman's admission broke a cold case for police in suburban Pasadena. He went to authorities on Feb. 5, voluntarily giving a statement admitting that he stabbed Iqbal Ahmed, 64, nearly 14 years ago.

According to police, Inman said he and a 13-year-old friend planned to rob the convenience store when Ahmed asked to see identification before giving them tobacco. That's when Inman produced a large kitchen knife and stabbed Ahmed in the chest, police said.

Inman kept his alleged killing a secret before telling Ron Nissen, senior pastor of the Pentecostal church, several weeks ago. Nissen, who said Inman found his way to the church in 1999, encouraged his youth pastor to surrender.

Cries of "Amen" and vigorous applause filled Elim Church on Sunday as Nissen told worshipers that Inman is still beloved by congregants.

Robin Thac's 17-year-old son was active in the youth group that Inman led.

"I am thrilled my son has a role model to accept responsibility the way Calvin has," Thac said. "There are way too many men who don't accept responsibility."

Inman resigned from the youth job in December. Most congregants said they knew he was grappling with something, but didn't know what.

"The debt he's paying to our society is teaching our young people to do the right thing," said Cheryl Ellis, a member of the church's youth staff. "To lock him away someplace and say he owes it to society is robbing the next generation of a mentor."

Police have said they interviewed Inman's friend, now 28, who acknowledged being involved in the robbery but not the stabbing. Relying on 1994 juvenile laws preventing prosecution of people 13 or younger, police said they could not charge the friend.


Atheists An Increasingly Outspoken Minority

In this presidential campaign season, Democrats and Republicans alike have declared their religious faith. They do it, in part, because they believe it wins political points. After all, the latest Harris polls show somewhere between 73 and 80 percent of Americans believe in God. But what about the rest?

Agnostics say they just don't know; others say they are firm non-believers. Whichever is the case, non-believers are increasingly outspoken in modern America.

By all appearances, the Lows are a tight-knit, loving family. Ron and Alice are devoted parents. Daughters Morgen and Maddy are good students involved in wholesome activities.

And there is one other significant fact of their lives: the Lows -- all four them -- are atheists. They say it's the certainty of science as opposed to what they call the "magic" of religion.

"I do feel like it's really important the whole world think rationally," Ron Low said. "I think a lot can go wrong when people make decisions based on things they don't really have evidence for."

Some atheists, like the Lows, lead quiet lives. But others are famous, including Lance Armstrong and Jodie Foster.

The numbers might surprise you in country with such a strong religious tradition.

"If you look at polls and scan them carefully, you can easily surmise atheists comprise somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the population," said S. Van Maren of American Atheists.

Today, atheism is mainstream. Authors who don't believe in God find their works prominently displayed in bookstores and topping the bestsellers list.

Why are atheists today so open? Non-believers and believers alike agree on one point: Different views are more tolerated in a country that is more diverse than ever.

"I don't know whether there are more atheists or we've created a culture where it's safer for people who have struggled with faith, or don't believe in God to be more forthright and honest about that," said Bishop Mark Hanson.

North Park College Professor Scott McKnight, himself a Christian, offers another reason for what he calls the new atheism. Atheists, he says, are vigorously responding to outspoken Christians who are involved in politics – the so-called religious right.

"There are people who say, 'I don't have any religious persuasion. I'm an atheist. Which party is there for me?'" McKnight said. "And I think that is part of the reason they've begun to lash out."

And statistics show there are more young atheists than older ones. At the University of Illinois at Chicago a group called the Rationalists and Free Thinkers includes students who don't believe in God, though some grew up in religious homes.

"I used my biological background that I have to create my own views," said atheist Neil Schultz. "And I just realized that is what I was raised to believe, just didn't make sense to me anymore."

Somewhere in the middle of it is a "humanistic Jewish" congregation.

"We celebrate our Judaism as our peoples' cultural, history, heritage, our food… all of that richness," said Rabbi Adam Chalom.

But they don't believe in God.

"We believe in people… that people have the ability to be useful to others and to take charge of their lives," Chalom said.

As a man of faith, Bishop Hanson still has a key question for those who don't believe in God.

"Where do you place your trust in times of need? Where do you place your hope in the time of a crisis of confidence?" Hanson said.

"An atheist will just deal with it, try to find a logical and reasonable solution," Van Maren said.

One particular question that bothers the Lows is when people ask "how can an atheist lead a good and moral life, without God?"

"The fact that I'm raising children and I want to be a good person and I like to do good things for other people -- that's not driven by religion," Alice Low said.

The Low children -- Morgan and Maddy -- say they've had no trouble making friends at school, even among those from religious families.

And religious scholars said some people who believe in God are also buying books written by atheists to see how the other side thinks, and perhaps test their faith against the arguments atheists make.


Saturday, February 16, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor reports to prison for tax evasion

The Rev. Gregory Clarke, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, checked in to a federal penitentiary in Atlanta around 8 a.m. Friday morning to begin serving a 21-month sentence for tax fraud.

Clarke walked into prison wearing a Crimson Tide jacket and baseball cap. He made the journey on a chartered bus, accompanied by about 50 church members. Other church members and supporters followed in vehicles.

A federal jury convicted Clarke in July 2007 on charges he filed false income tax returns for 2000, 2001 and 2002. At trial prosecutors said Clarke underreported $110,000 in earned income and schemes to deceive the government about the money.

Clarke has said he was singled out because of his friendship with former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, who is serving a prison sentence after he was convicted on seven corruption-related counts by a federal jury in Montgomery in 2006.

Here is a video taken before the bus departed for Atlanta. Clarke tells reporters and supporters that he is ready to report and has the items he needs for a "camping trip."

Rev. Gregory Clarke talks to reporters before departing for prison

Here he arrives in the parking lot outside the prison and hugs friends and parishioners, some of them tearful.

Rev. Gregory Clarke says goodbye to parishioners as he checks into Atlanta prison


Monday, February 11, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Stop praying, start reading

The secularization of American public education has bred a nation of devout religious illiterates.

By Patrick Grumley and Matt Leighton

While it seems to be a growing trend for religious enthusiasts to claim that secular, and even atheist, ideologies are hugging the public square, evangelicalism seems to have more than just outlived the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. To date, Christianity has been the self-proclaimed founder of American morality. More recently however, Jesus and the divinely inspired have found competition at the book store by atheist authors such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins on the subject of morality and divinity. This dichotomy of ideals has fostered the public war between the religious and secular State, much to the amusement of European onlookers.

For many elementary schools in Europe, students are taught compulsory religious education. By middle school, students are well aware of the holy books of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and have some understanding of Buddhism and Hinduism. In spite of this knowledge, most European students are far less likely to regularly attending church, a mosque or synagogue. Americans seem to be just the opposite. As Stephen Prothero, the head chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University regards religion in the United States, "here faith without understanding is the norm, and religious ignorance is bliss."

Most Americans understand the central tenet of a separation of church and state, but a University of North Carolina study revealed few undergraduates can name the clauses that determine the extent of this separation (the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses), or even where it is found in the constitution (the First Amendment). The secularization of American public education has bred a nation of devout religious illiterates. The First Amendment clause of freedom of religion has been whittled down to an easier stance of freedom from religion.

This begs the question: was the United States founded by a homogeneous team of Christian scholars as so many "born agains" like to claim? One does not need to look too far for the questioned to be answered. When the words, "founding fathers" are uttered out of any mouth, perhaps two of the most prominent figures to proverbially appear would be Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Both of these men adopted the nonreligious and less indoctrinated stance of Deism (loosely defined as a belief in a higher authority through nature's evidence, not divine revelation), and were certainly not convinced the Bible was divine corollary. Once again, any inquisitive mind only has to look as far as the autobiographies of either man to find evidence of this assertion. In Franklin's autobiography he directly claims to be a, "thorough Deist," and Jefferson's rhetoric almost always referred to a creator and not to Jesus. It then becomes rather obvious that the constitutional clauses were put in place not just to show toleration to those who will choose a non-Judeo-Christian ideology in the future, but also to facilitate the non-religious position of some of those who created it.

Sociologist Peter L. Berger once remarked that if India is the most religious country, and Sweden is the least, then the United States is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. Well, not really. The secular left feel just as besieged as the religious right. A commonly held fear by secularists is the notion that popular political thought is stumbling back to a medievalist theocracy where President George W. Bush and his acolytes answer to God before the people. Much to the consternation of this school of thought, nearly 90 percent of Congress claim to reference the Bible when making important legislative decisions. In the year 2000, Christianity claimed a score of 50 out of 50 as the religion held by State Governors. Similarly, 93 percent of Americans say they would elect a Jew to the presidency, but only around half of Americans would vote for a properly suited atheist.

Religion is as pervasive in civic society as it was during the First and Second Great Awakening. The debate on whether America is Christian or secular nation is fundamentally confused, it has always been both. The United States by law is a secular nation. God is not mentioned in the constitution, and the first amendment and Supreme Court litmus tests have prohibited the endorsement of religion by the State. Nonetheless, the free exercise clause grants citizens religion by choice and safeguards religious liberty. The irony of the situation is both the faithful and the secularists act as though they are on the verge of extinction, while neither is close to it, nor is either close to monopoly.

Most of the theist doctrines that are dismissed as fables by Europeans such as heaven and hell, the resurrection of Jesus and Noah's flood story are enthusiastically adopted as divine truth by American believers. Americans are staunchly religious, and through the international lens are many times viewed as Christian fanatics and fundamentalists. However, Americans put their money where their mouth is. The annual giving to houses of worship in the United States of $88 billion is around the gross domestic product of Syria. The devaluation of the dollar may not only be weighed in monetary terms, as most Americans, including the more than 250 million who claim to be Christian, can only name on average five of the possible 12 Ten Commandments pending on the Catholic, Protestant or Jewish text they are derived from.

If Americans are to contribute to intellectual civil discourse on the subject of religion, it is a prerequisite to first understand their own religion as well as the religions of their allies and adversaries. The most widely quoted Biblical saying, "God helps those who help themselves" is nowhere to be found in the Bible, but was originally found in Aesop's Fables, and later transliterated to the modern aphorism by Benjamin Franklin. American politicians and diplomats manifest the same religious illiteracy of the citizens who elected and nominate them. When asked whether al-Qaida was a Sunni or Shiite organization, the head of the House Intelligence Committee incorrectly guessed Shiite. Then again, he is not alone as many Americans connect Islam to terrorism and Islamo-fascism, but lack any knowledge to back this claim. When learning any subject, a minimal understanding always precedes critical evaluation. The same formula needs to be applied to religion. If one decides to adopt or denounce the Quran or Bible, it may be good practice to have read them first.

What do you think?

Sunday, February 10, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

More than $1 billion annually funneled through ORU?

A former Oral Roberts University accountant revised his lawsuit on Thursday to allege that more than $1 billion annually was funneled through the university, possibly to individual regents.

"It appears that many of the former board members were actual participants in the funneling of money through the university for their own eventual personal use, and thus, the foxes were watching the hen house," says former accountant Trent Huddleston's lawsuit.

ORU spokesman Jeremy Burton said, "The allegations of inappropriately funneling money through accounts as alleged by the plaintiff have no basis in fact."

Huddleston's attorney Gary Richardson said Huddleston had seen the account when he worked at ORU, between July 2006 and October 2007. In the lawsuit, Huddleston claims he was wrongfully fired because ORU, Oral Roberts Ministries and their leaders' fears he would talk about the alleged "'unrestricted' account" and because he regularly questioned expenses.

Richardson said he received confirmation about the alleged unrestricted account from a person who should know. Until he received confirmation, he agreed that funneling of $1 billion seemed implausible.

"Based on the confirmation, I'm very confident" in the allegation, Richardson said. "As confident as one can be without seeing it for oneself."

In 2005-06, ORU's expenses were $83.89 million and revenue was $79.7 million, according to its Internal Revenue Service filing.

Richardson had not seen any documentation of the alleged account or flow of money, he said, and he "cannot disclose" whether the information came from an audit of ORU's finances, performed after more of Richardson's clients sued ORU and alleged that its president and his family had misspent ORU and Oral Roberts Ministries money. ORU has not made the audit public, and officials have said ORU's former board of regents received the report verbally. ORU is now governed by a new board of trustees.

"I have no answers about where this money came from nor where it went," Richardson said.

The new version of Huddleston's lawsuit adds as defendants all of ORU's former business regents, a former associate regent, Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association and the association/Oral Roberts Ministries directors, John and Jane Does.


Related stories: ORU president resigns in dishonor
Oral RU without Dick?
Oral Roberts: True Christianity

Saturday, February 09, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Church music director charged with rape

The 31-year-old music director of Bethel AME, a high-profile West Baltimore church, has been accused of rape and child abuse in a case involving a 13-year-old girl who is a member of the congregation, according to city police and church officials.

Timothy D. Price III was charged with second-degree rape, assault and child abuse, and multiple sex offense counts, city police said. Since his arrest Wednesday night, Price, who lives in Owings Mills, has been held on $1 million bail at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center, electronic court records show.

Price and the girl had sex on three occasions in his car, off church property, between early November and January, police said. Twice the meetings occurred in a West Baltimore alley and once in the parking lot of Druid Hill Park, according to police charging documents.

The documents allege that one encounter occurred after Price obtained permission from the girl's mother to bring her home from church Bible study class. Police said the girl was 12 when the incidents occurred. Price confessed to having sex with the girl, according to police charging documents.

Bethel AME's congregation has more than 17,000 registered members. Many of those who come to services on Druid Hill Avenue in Upton commute from surrounding counties.

The church and its pastor, the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, are known for their influence. A number of the city's top leaders, including Mayor Sheila Dixon and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, are Bethel members, former mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is Reid's stepbrother, and Sunday services are frequent stops for candidates for city and statewide office.

In an interview this morning, Reid called Price's arrest "a real shock."

He said his church had not received any prior written or verbal complaints about Price, whose full-time job was to lead the various musical programs at the church. He said the last time he saw Price was during services for Ash Wednesday, two days ago. Then, later in the day, he got a phone call from someone who said Price had been arrested.

"For everybody involved it is a great tragedy," Reid said. "He had a good reputation, as far as I was aware. ... The people loved him."

Reid said that Price was hired in 2006 after the church went through a national recruitment process for a new music director. He said Price's references were checked, and that he came from a church in Houston. He has a wife and at least one child, a 1-year-old daughter, Reid said.

"It's a very important and responsible position," Reid said. "He is in contact with all members of the church, because of the position he's in."

Related links:

File interview with Timothy D. Price III

Music Ministry Video


Friday, February 08, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Teacher at Christian school charged with having sex with student

It’s a kid’s paradise! Living Stones Church in Alvin, Texas, makes their summer camp an experience that kids will never forget.

“They go home and their parents say, ‘They’re so positive now. They believe they can do anything, and [there's a] change in schoolwork.' It’s just amazing.” --

ALVIN — A teacher at a Brazoria County private school has been charged after allegations she had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student in an isolated Friendswood area in December.

Jill Lewis, 26, of Dickinson turned herself in to Friendswood police Thursday after she was charged with having an improper relationship between an educator and a student, a second-degree felony. If convicted, Lewis faces up to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

A press release from Friendswood police announcing the charges did not name the school at which Lewis taught, but a Jill Lewis is shown as the speech, computer and journalism teacher for secondary-level students on the Web site of Living Stones Christian School in Alvin.

The school is a subsidiary of Living Stones Church in Alvin. Calls to both the school principal and senior pastor of the church were not returned Thursday.

Friendswood police began investigating the teacher after an anonymous tip on the relationship came in to the department in mid-January, Friendswood Police Chief Robert Weiners said.

Investigators saw Lewis having sex with one of her students at the end of a Friendswood dead-end road in December, Wieners said.

“It’s taken us this long to put the pieces together,” he said. “The investigation yielded enough evidence for the district attorney to file charges.”

Lewis was being held at Galveston County Jail on Thursday on $30,000 bond.

Students in kindergarten through 12th grade attend classes at Living Stones Christian School.


And this just in:

Tuesday, February 05, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Church pastor charged with theft

A Midlands church has lost $136,000. One of the people accused of taking it is the man who preaches every Sunday.

They're accused of doing one of the most deceptive things a church official could do. Church member Mary Sullivan says, "I was shocked."

Investigators think they were stealing money from the church. Lt. Phillip Crawford says, "I think we were all shocked when we first found out."

It happened at St. John's United Methodist Church in Lugoff. Pastor Gerald Lord is accused of using a church credit card to rack up a $16,000 bill that included all personal items, all over a two-year period. He'd only been there about three years.

Lea Ann O'Quinn, the church's bookkeeper but not a member of the church, is accused of using $120,000 of the church's money. Investigators say she used a church credit card for five years to help pay off her debts, and then used the church funds to pay off the credit card bill.

"I had no idea anything like that would be going on," says Sullivan. "I just wish it hadn't happened."

Investigators say when church administrators reported to O'Quinn that money was missing, she admitted what she had been doing and she also informed them about Pastor Lord's credit card.

Lt. Phillip Crawford says, "I think it's sad; but again, good people do bad things sometimes. It's not necessarily that they're bad people."

Sullivan says, "I think everybody was shocked and hurt, but I think everybody is going to pitch in and try to build from that and everybody makes mistakes. So, I think we will be better for it."

WIS News 10's Trey Paul spoke with Pastor Lord by phone. He wouldn't comment on his arrest, but he did say he loves his church, and his prayers and thoughts are with its members. O'Quinn couldn't be reached.

If convicted, they could both face up to 10 years in prison.

This is the second scandal to hit Saint John's United Methodist in the past couple of weeks. Saint John's is the same church where Russell Spitzer was a Committee Chair. The 49-year-old is the ex-Boy Scout leader charged with sending porn to one of the Boy Scouts. Shortly after Spitzer's arrest, Saint John's held a parent meeting to talk about the charges against the former scout leader.

Pastor charged with murder

DURHAM N.C., -- At the home Robert Lee Adam Reaves rented in Durham, a Wake County Sheriff's Deputy guards the driveway.

Neighbors inquire about Reaves, a pastor charged with murder.

"It's very quiet. People talk in passing but there's nothing ever exciting that happens around here," said Reaves' neighbor Scott Nash.

But last Wednesday, the body of 21-year-old North Carolina Central University student Latrece Curtis was discovered on an I-540 embankment. Investigators say she died from being hit with a sharp object -- at the hands of Reaves.

Monday, Reaves clad not in a pastor's robe, but a Wake County Jail issued jumpsuit, made his first appearance.

"Based on the circumstances of this situation, I will issue a 'no bond' at this time, you'll be held without bond," said the judge.

Still Reaves is no stranger to being on the other side of the law. He faced a conviction on sex charges while the pastor of a church in South Carolina, charges for financial card theft, motor vehicle theft and fraud.

Now the 43-year-old faces another charge -- one that could put him away for a very long time. One that church congregants and fellow parishioners just can't believe.

"This is not the man that I know and most of us that are involved with him, this is a good man," said Reaves' friend and pastor of Tehillah Church Ministries, Bishop Anthony Slater. This is a shock to all of us. We send our prayers to the family of the victim that something else will come out of this.”

And while Reaves awaits his probable cause hearing set for Feb. 25, family members await answers as to why someone could kill their daughter, wife and friend.


Saturday, February 02, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor Charged With Grand Theft

Miami-Dade Police say Pastor Gaston Smith used your tax dollars for his own personal vacations, grant money that was supposed to go to the low-income community he has spent years serving, but Friday a new name that is already involved in scandal came up in the investigation.

Officers arrested Smith Thursday night. He's a well respected figure in the Liberty City community, but police say he stole from the very community he has been honored for serving.

Smith has received awards and commendations from a number of institutions, including Congress and Miami-Dade County. He is the senior pastor at the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City, and he has spoken out on many social issues in the past.

But police say, while he may be well-respected, he is a thief. They have charged him with 2nd degree Grand Theft.

The police investigation reported that in July of 2005, Rev. Gaston Smith deposited the grant funds into a Washington Mutual bank account in the name of Friends of MLK, Inc.

"Our investigation revealed Reverend Gaston Smith made the following unauthorized expenditures," said Dir. Robert Parker of Miami-Dade Police Dept. "To the tune of $10,356.50 in ATM cash withdrawals at various locations throughout Miami-Dade County, Broward County, Orlando, the state of Texas, and Las Vegas, Nevada."

He added, "$5,076.73 in purchases for airline tickets, car rentals, hotel accommodations, and classes at the University of North Florida."
The remaining balance is still under investigation and was reportedly used for various other purchases not within the scope of services articulated in the grant agreement.

His lawyer, Michael Tein, denies the allegation.

"Not a penny, not a nickel, not a dime," said Tein. "Every single dollar is accounted for 100 percent."

Tein is so adamant his client is innocent that he may file a federal lawsuit against the police department accusing them of violating the pastor's civil rights. Tein is also upset police made the arrest, because he says the state attorney was not on board.

The report added that a Friends of MLK Board Member was not aware that the agency had applied for or received the grant. It also wrote that another Friends of MLK Board Member was asked by Rev. Smith to sign blank checks that required two signatures and was not aware how the grant funds were utilized. He also had no knowledge that Rev. Smith possessed an ATM card that gave him unsupervised access to the funds.

Sources also say that $4,000 of that money was written in checks to Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones's company, Karym Ventures Inc. That was in 2005, when she worked part time for the city. Spence-Jones is already investigated by the State Attorney's Office for allegations of accepting money for her votes approving the construction of a condo project in Coconut Grove.

Her lawyer told CBS4 that she did consulting work for Friends of MLK.

"Michelle performed services for 'Friends of MLK', which is a separate non-profit, pursuant to a contract. She did everything she was supposed to do. It was a legitimate contract, she didn't do anything wrong."

CBS4 News got a hold of the grant contract Smith holds with the county. The documents showed his non-profit group called "Friends of MLK" promised to use $25,000 of tax money to improve Liberty City. That money was supposed to be used to buy flyers and posters for community outreach. Friends of MLK was also supposed to start up an Internet website to promote local efforts. They also promised to use that money to coordinate an MLK fundraiser, and to coordinate a senior citizens community garden.

Sources close to the investigation say he didn't do any of it, and they say he kept most of the cash.

"Kathy Fernandez-Rundle listened to us, carefully considered this, and while the issue was sitting on her desk, the Miami-Dade Police Department abusively went to arrest a man who was completely 100 percent innocent," said Tein. "How dare they go and arrest him, without checking their facts, without looking at the math, without caring whether he's actually innocent."

The State Attorney's office says that the police department has the right to act on its own if necessary.


Pastor charged with theft

A Scott County Pastor has been charged with stealing $900 from his church.

Pastor Joe Moran, of Stamping Ground Baptist Church, was arraigned this month on theft charges. He pleaded not guilty.

Moran tells 27NEWSFIRST the allegations are nothing more than a big misunderstanding. He says he made a mistake when he deposited a check for $900.50 into his personal account.

He says the check was written out to him and was sent to his personal address.

Some of the 100-member congregation have left the Church and have asked Moran to step down. But he says he did nothing wrong and that he will not be leaving.

Moran will be back in Scott County Court on February 21 for a preliminary hearing.


Friday, February 01, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

MySpace deletes hacked Web site for atheists and agnostics

It isn't easy being godless online.

For the third time in three years, what may be the largest group of organized atheists in the world is struggling to stay on MySpace, said a Cleveland State University assistant professor who founded the site for nonbelievers.

MySpace deleted the 35,000-member "Atheist and Agnostic Group" on Jan. 1, a little more than a month after hackers broke in and renamed the group's site "Jesus Is Love," Bryan Pesta said Wednesday.

MySpace has ignored repeated requests to restore the group's site, including an online petition with more than 500 signatures, said Pesta, who was the group's moderator.

"These actions send a clear message to the 30 million godless people in America that we are not welcome on MySpace," Pesta said.

A MySpace spokeswoman did not return calls seeking comment.

Pesta started the group in 2004 as a social networking site "specifically for godless people." Atheists are more likely to be geographically spread out, and the online group provided a sense of community, he said.

"We're regular people, just like Christians, Muslims and Jews," he said. "We like to network."

The site grew by about 10,000 people a year to just under 35,000 members by the end of 2007, Pesta said.

But it was never without controversy. Two years ago, Pesta said, MySpace deleted the group after an organized campaign from Christians opposing the site. MySpace restored it and promised it would be protected, Pesta said.

Last Thanksgiving, hackers broke into the group's site, deleting material and renaming it "Jesus Is Love." MySpace restored the site three weeks later but then shut it down this year, Pesta said.

The group was an important resource for nonbelievers, supporters said.

Hollis Geary, a group member from Lyndhurst, Ohio, said she appreciated having a site where nonbelievers could meet and bounce ideas off each other amid the freedom and anonymity of the Web.

"We're a pretty quiet minority," she said. "There's just a lot of people that are atheist, agnostic or curious" who don't come out publicly.