Congress, please help

Good luck to Rockland County Legislator Joseph Meyers.

As my colleague Sarah Netter “reports,”: Meyers is asking his colleagues to call for Congress to study the local impact of the Religious Land Use Act.

The ultra-controversial federal law basically says that municipalities cannot stop religious groups from renovating or adding to their land — without a really, really good reason.

The law has been the subject of dozens of lawsuits, none of which have made it to the U.S. Supreme Court (another part of the law that deals with the religious rights of inmates has made it, but that’s another story).

Meyers wants to take a stand, as thousands of municipal officials probably do across the country.

“Land use, in our history, has always been a local matter,” he said.

Of course, Congress is well aware of the great impact that the Religious Land Use Act has had. Lobbyists on all sides have been hard at work defending and opposing the law (which was passed under President Clinton).

The law’s future will ultimately be decided in the courts, it seems.

On that ‘exclusionary religious rhetoric’…

A few dozen Catholic, mainline Protestant and evangelical leaders have signed a statement asking that political candidates not use religious rhetoric to advance partisan agendas or attack their opponents.

Here’s the text (the signatories are listed at the bottom):

Keeping Faith: Principles to Protect Religion on the Campaign Trail

The role of religion in public life is a pivotal and contested question this election year. Republican and Democratic candidates alike have drawn on Biblical language and highlighted the importance of faith to articulate their personal and political values. As believers, we will always stand up for religious expression and the importance of religion for America, but we are troubled by some current trends in political campaigns.

Religion forms virtues vital to democratic citizenship. Religion calls citizens to transcend self-interest in service to others—to those in need, to neighbor, to community, to country and to the world. Religion promotes fundamental moral values necessary for civilized public life—honor and honesty, charity and justice. Religion has brought hope and liberty to America’s powerless and disenfranchised, and its teachings have inspired our country’s most admirable achievements.

Yet in this year’s presidential campaign, we are troubled to see candidates pressed to pronounce the nature of their religious beliefs, asked if they believe every word of the Bible, forced to fend off warnings by a few religious authorities about reception of sacraments, compelled to confront derogatory and false allegations of radical Muslim childhood education, and faced with prejudicial analyses of their denominational doctrines.

Exclusionary religious rhetoric by candidates and constant scrutiny of the minutiae of their faiths undermine religion’s valuable role in public life. It also runs contrary to the unique American commitment to both religious freedom and non-establishment of religion. History is replete with examples of religion compromised by its collusion with power, and the role of religion in the current campaign raises concern that it is once again being misused.

As citizens of faith united in efforts to reinvigorate religion’s role in the public square, we are convinced that the greatest protection for that role is clear and unambiguous support for both religious expression and non-establishment of religion. Following Article VI of the U. S. Constitution and the First Amendment, we identify three basic principles. Continue reading

No, NYC is not moving to Islamic law

But the New York City Bar Association is presenting a program about the Fatwa.

I’ll let the lawyers explain it:

The latest in the New York City Bar Association’s continuing presentations on Islamic Law brings together an outstanding panel to discuss the primary element of Islamic jurisprudence – the Fatwa. This is an important opportunity to understand how legal and religious disputes are resolved throughout the Muslim world. Fatwas, in Arabic fatawa, are the non-binding but precedential legal opinions issued by muftis, scholars of Islamic law. The fatwas cover every aspect of Islamic law, and therefore Muslim life. Our speakers will both explain the processes by which fatawa are issued and explore a number of areas in which they play a critical role.

The program is free and open to the public. It’s on Wednesday, Jan. 23 from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at the NYCBA, 42 West 44th St.

Topics will include: “Render Unto Caesar or Revolution: Shi’a Political Fatawa of the Past 100 Years;” “Fatawa for the Family: Rituals, Authority, and Hijab;” and “The Dow Jones Fatwa and Islamic Finance.”

When the Book of Mormon changes a word

What do Mormons believe?

I’ve been asked this question more than a few times over the past couple of months. It’s a tough one to answer in a few minutes. (I usually stick with Joseph Smith, the golden plates and the restoration of the one, true church. Then I recommend Richard and Joan Ostling’s “Mormon America.”)

One thing that I’ve noticed often makes people quite curious is the LDS belief that Native Americans are the descendants of a lost tribe of Israel (I don’t think I ever mention this, but people ask about the Native American thing).

So I think it’s worth noting a very interesting “AP story”: by Jennifer Dobner that focuses on the change of one word in the Book of Mormon. The article addresses the question of whether (and how) the one word may change the LDS presentation of its belief about the Native Americans.

Give it a shot:

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The introduction to the 2006 edition of the Book of Mormon has a new word: among.

It sounds trivial, but to some it represents a huge change to teachings that have been passed on for generations within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The new wording comes in a passage about American Indians, who have long been presented by Mormon leaders as direct ancestors of a lost tribe of Israel known as the Lamanites.

“After thousands of years all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians,” the new introduction reads.

In previous editions, the phrase was “are the ancestors.”

What’s the big deal? Church defenders say there is nothing important in the change.

But skeptics view it differently. The issue is that church missionaries have long portrayed Book of Mormon stories as fact. To them, it looks like the new wording is a quiet concession that DNA research accurately contradicts the scriptural claim.

“Now they’re going to say, ‘We got that wrong?'” said Edmonds Community College professor of anthropology Thomas Murphy in Lynnwood, Wash. Continue reading

Papal ticket info: early February

There’s a bit more “information”: on tickets for the papal visit (since I wrote about it yesterday).

The Archdiocese of New York is now saying that pastors will receive detailed information about tickets — allocation and distribution — in early February.

Remember, for people within the archdiocese, tickets for both the papal visit to Dunwoodie on April 19 and the papal Mass at Yankee Stadium on April 20 will go through parishes.

People in dioceses outside NY should contact their bishop’s office for ticket info.

The ticket info line: 212.371.1011 Ext. POPE (7673).

Do faith and reason have to be at odds?

Faith and reason. Reason and faith.

Two months ago, I covered a “forum”: at Fordham U about whether our modern understanding of the universe makes it harder to believe in a personal God.

Well, this Sunday (Jan. 20), a different group of distinguished thinkers will gather at NYU to look at the opposite side of the coin: whether faith can broaden reason.

The “event”: is being sponsored by the Crossroads New York Cultural Center, a “meeting place for people who share a passion for knowing” that was founded in 2004 by several members of the Catholic movement “Communion and Liberation.”:

The speakers Sunday will be: Father Julián Carrón, president of Communion and Liberation; Dr. Robert Pollack, Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University , and Dr. Joseph Weiler, Professor of Law at New York University.

_41009213_050407_papa_alb_203.jpgAnd the moderator will be Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a prominent (and very funny) theologian (that’s him) who used to teach at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers and is now an American leader of C&L.

The discussion is inspired by a book, “Is It Possible to Live This Way?” that was written by Monsignor Luigi Giussani, the late founder of C&L.

It will take place at 4 p.m. at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at NYC, 566 LaGuardia Place in NYC (Washington Square South).

The Crossroads website sets up the event like this:

One of the great themes of discussion of the last few years has been the relationship between faith and reason, science and religion. There has been a strong trend in our culture to identify reason with the methods of the natural sciences, and to dismiss all other forms of knowledge as necessarily subjective and irrational. This tendency to diminish the scope and depth of human reason has been one of the great concerns of Pope Benedict XVI, who has repeatedly called for a “ broadening of reason,� pointing out that even science builds on philosophical foundations that it does not give itself.

The search for safe food leads to Kosher

Is Kosher the new organic?

Kosher food sales have been steadily increasing for years, and “U.S. News & World Report”: looks at why. People seem to think that Kosher is not only healthier, but safer.

Here’s their lead:

Not only Jews look for the kosher symbol on food these days. In a surprising turn of events, “kosher” has become the most popular claim on new food products, trouncing “organic” and “no additives or preservatives,” according to a recent report. A noteworthy 4,719 new kosher items were launched in the United States last year—nearly double the number of new “all natural” products, which placed second in the report, issued last month by Mintel, a Chicago-based market research firm.

In fact, sales of kosher foods have risen an estimated 15 percent a year for the past decade. Yet Jews, whose religious doctrine mandates the observance of kosher dietary laws, make up only 20 percent of those buying kosher products. What gives? “It’s the belief among all consumers that kosher food is safer, a critical thing right now with worries about the integrity of the food supply,” says Marcia Mogelonsky, a senior research analyst at Mintel.

Worship times a click away

Think about what the Web has done for religious travelers.

When I was at Temple Israel Center of White Plains on Sunday, scholar Michael Berenbaum complained a bit that Conservative Judaism does not have a central website that includes prayer times at all Conservative synagogues.

He noted that the Orthodox website “”: is a worldwide minyan database, making it as easy as possible for travelers to find a place to pray. even helps people start a new minyan (a prayer quorum of at least 10 people — or 10 men in most of the Orthodox world). is much like “,”: a website that helps Catholics find a Mass wherever they are.

Thanks to the Web, business travelers and others can schedule their worship as part of their itineraries before they even get on a plane…

Do it like the Dalai Lama

Can Arnold Eisen by the Dalai Lama of Conservative Judaism?

I spent yesterday afternoon at Temple Israel Center of White Plains, where I “listened”: to a panel of scholars discuss the future of Conservative Judaism. It was kind of enthralling to listen to four very bright people talk in a serious way about a subject that is near and dear to their hearts.

They agreed that Conservative Judaism has a great product to sell — a form of Jewish commitment that is true to tradition but open to newness. But they acknowledged that it is a steep challenge to get people to see that the Conservative path, rigorous and intellectual, can be deeply rewarding.

Something like fun.

As Temple Israel’s Senior Rabbi Gordon Tucker put it:

It’s one of the things we have to struggle with, in terms of articulation, in terms of words, how to make the struggle – in terms of balance and tension — into something exciting and passionate.

Yes, the word “struggle” came up a lot yesterday. Conservative Judaism often involves a struggle between past and present, between tradition and modernity. But even talking about it can be a struggle.

tjndc5-5ia0ybxyo3ab5rfokgj_layout.jpgThe scholars talked a lot about leadership. They were pretty darn critical of Conservative Judaism’s current leadership, and repeatedly called for something new and better.

Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg (that’s him) said of the Dalai Lama: “It’s not just what he says, but also who he is.”

The name of Arnold Eisen was invoked at several points. The new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC, the panelists said and implied, must lead the movement in a new way. They had high hopes for him.

It’s not just what Eisen says…

Coach’s team out, but his book’s selling

His team may have been bounced from the playoffs yesterday, but…

It’s still worth noting that Indianapolis Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy’s book, “Quiet Strength,”: has been a major publishing success story.

There are more than 1 million copies in print.

pic_tonydungy.jpgThe memoir deals largely with Dungy’s Christian faith, in particular how his faith helped him deal with his son’s suicide two years ago. It’s published by “Tyndale House Publishers,”: a very successful Christian publishing house.

“Quiet Strength” was released in July 2007 with an initial run of 170,000 copies.

Dungy is one of those rare public figures who seems to be universally admired. He is openly considering retirement. If he does, might some sort of career in ministry await?