Yonkers school board has a ‘pastor’

I forgot to mention yesterday the election of a popular Orthodox Christian priest as president of the Yonkers Board of Education.

tjndc5-5b5q9qwolliq7l2xezi_layout.jpgFather Gerald Sudick, the pastor of Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church since 1990, has an extensive background in education. For 20 years, he taught history at a public high school near Binghamton. He has also served on the board of trustees of SUNY Binghamton.

He is also an expert on Russian history and language, and has been a visiting lecturer on foreign policy at Harvard.

Sudick is ordained in the Orthodox Church in America. He was recently the chancellor of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey of the Orthodox Church in America.

He was appointed to the school board in 2005. Now he is its pastor, so to speak.

Familiar names top first ballot for ELCA bishop

The Metropolitan NY Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has started the process of choosing a new bishop.

On the first ballot yesterday, delegates nominated 81 people from within and without New York. Twenty four got more than 5 votes. No one approached the 75 percent of the vote needed to win (the percentage drops with each ballot).

The big surprise?

As I wrote yesterday, an internal study on the state of the synod revealed tremendous anxiety over the future of the ELCA in New York. Many people believe that pastors and congregations have not gotten enough leadership and support from the bishop’s office.

But the two top vote-getters on the first ballot were the Rev. Robert Wollenburg (86 votes) and the Rev. Gary Mills (48 votes), both members of the former bishop’s staff.

The second ballot is this morning.

California’s gay marriage decision will reverberate

Certainly, the California Supreme Court’s decision today to overturn a ban on gay marriage will be of great interest to the world of religion.

Many will rue the day; others will rejoice.

Many will say the decision ignores the country’s Judeo-Christian traditions (not to mention the Bible); others will say that the decision is prophetic and offers equality to some more of God’s children.

Here’s the AP story:

Associated Press Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ In a monumental victory for the gay rights movement, the California Supreme Court overturned a voter-approved ban on gay marriage Thursday in a ruling that would allow same-sex couples in the nation’s biggest state to tie the knot.

Domestic partnerships are not a good enough substitute for marriage, the justices ruled 4-3 in striking down the ban.

Outside the courthouse, gay marriage supporters cried and cheered as the news spread.

Jeanie Rizzo, one of the plaintiffs, called Pali Cooper, her partner of 19 years, and asked, “Pali, will you marry me?”

“This is a very historic day. This is just such freedom for us,” Rizzo said. “This is a message that says all of us are entitled to human dignity.”

In the Castro, historically a center of the gay community in San Francisco, Tim Oviatt started crying while watching the news on TV.

“I’ve been waiting for this all my life,” he said. “This is a life-affirming moment.”

The city of San Francisco, two dozen gay and lesbian couples and gay rights groups sued in March 2004 after the court halted the monthlong wedding march that took place when Mayor Gavin Newsom opened the doors of City Hall to same-sex marriages.

“Today the California Supreme Court took a giant leap to ensure that everybody — not just in the state of California, but throughout the country — will have equal treatment under the law,” said City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who argued the case for San Francisco.

The challenge for gay rights advocates, however, is not over.

A coalition of religious and social conservative groups is attempting to put a measure on the November ballot that would enshrine laws banning gay marriage in the state constitution.

The Secretary of State is expected to rule by the end of June whether the sponsors gathered enough signatures to qualify the marriage amendment, similar to ones enacted in 26 other states.

If voters pass the measure in November, it would trump the court’s decision.

California already offers same-sex couples who register as domestic partners the same legal rights and responsibilities as married spouses, including the right to divorce and to sue for child support.

But, “Our state now recognizes that an individual’s capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend upon the individual’s sexual orientation,” Chief Justice Ron George wrote for the court’s majority, which also included Justices Joyce Kennard, Kathryn Werdegar and Carlos Moreno.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Marvin Baxter agreed with many arguments of the majority but said the court overstepped its authority. Changes to marriage laws should be decided by the voters, Baxter wrote. Justices Ming Chin and Carol Corrigan also dissented.

The conservative Alliance Defense Fund says it plans to ask the justices for a stay of their decision until after the fall election, said Glen Lavey, senior counsel for the group.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has twice vetoed legislation that would’ve granted marriage rights to same-sex couples, said in a news release that he respected the court’s decision and “will not support an amendment to the constitution that would overturn this state Supreme Court ruling.”

The last time California voters were asked to express their views on gay marriage at the ballot box was in 2000, the year after the Legislature enacted the first of a series of laws awarding spousal rights to domestic partners.

Proposition 22, which strengthened the state’s 1978 one-man, one-woman marriage law with the words “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California,” passed with 61 percent of the vote.

The Supreme Court struck down both statutes with its sweeping opinion Thursday.

Lawyers for the gay couples had asked the court to overturn the laws as an unconstitutional civil rights violation that domestic partnerships cannot repair. A trial court judge in San Francisco agreed with gay rights advocates and voided the state’s marriage laws in April 2005. A midlevel appeals court overturned his decision in October 2006.

Obama’s Muslim ‘past’ still hanging around

I keep hearing people talk about an odd op-ed in the NYT last week, which argued that many Muslims will see Barack Obama as a former Muslim who gave up the faith and is thus an apostate.

Edward N. Luttwak, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote:

As the son of the Muslim father, Senator Obama was born a Muslim under Muslim law as it is universally understood. It makes no difference that, as Senator Obama has written, his father said he renounced his religion. Likewise, under Muslim law based on the Koran his mother’s Christian background is irrelevant.

Of course, as most Americans understand it, Senator Obama is not a Muslim. He chose to become a Christian, and indeed has written convincingly to explain how he arrived at his choice and how important his Christian faith is to him.

His conversion, however, was a crime in Muslim eyes; it is “irtidad” or “ridda,” usually translated from the Arabic as “apostasy,” but with connotations of rebellion and treason. Indeed, it is the worst of all crimes that a Muslim can commit, worse than murder (which the victim’s family may choose to forgive).

I was mystified by this argument. More importantly, so are many Muslim scholars.

Among several letters to the NYT was this one from Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America:

mattson.jpgLike the Jewish legal tradition, Islamic law is a conversation represented in dynamic and diverse schools of thought. Edward N. Luttwak speaks of an essentialized Islamic law that does not exist.

Nevertheless, there is no dispute among Muslims that Islam is not an ethnic affiliation, nor is it passed through the gene pool. A Muslim parent is morally responsible for raising his or her child within Islam; children, for their part, have no legal culpability. There is no legal obligation by a child to affiliate with the Muslim community.

Islam does not consider Barack Obama ever to have been part of the Muslim community. Apostasy has no relevance here.

Hussein Rashid, a PhD candidate in Harvard University’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, wrote a more lengthy response here.

Part of his essay includes:

Sen. Obama is an exceptionally charismatic speaker who was NEVER a Muslim. Although he was born to a Muslim father, his father renounced his faith. To be a Muslim is not a legal status that is transmitted by birth, like Judaism is confirmed through the mother. A child can be raised as a Muslim, but still renounce the faith when she reaches the age of comprehension without penalty. To be a Muslim is a voluntary act that must be taken on with full knowledge of what is entailed. In this instance Sen. Obama was not even raised as Muslim. He did not choose to leave the faith, he was never part of it. One can argue that his father was an apostate, but the son cannot be responsible for the acts of the father, that is “Muslim law as it universally understood.”

Who wants to follow this man? (Is Ironman available?)

tjndc5-5dxoalzio0h226pio0o_layout.jpgHe is Bishop Stephen Bouman, the last leader of the New York jurisdiction of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The Metropolitan New York Synod of the ELCA begins a three-day assembly in Tarrytown today — facing big-time challenges.

An internal report on the state of the synod this:

When asked about primary issues facing this synod, an active synod member voiced the theme that was heard repeatedly in response to this topic: “This is a synod that is in crisis, and it has been denying this over the last 20-30 years. Now, the crisis is more acute. The viability of congregations needs to be addressed, even though it is awkward.”


And the summary included this:

While much of the fear and anxiety was openly voiced, there seems to be a broader layer of fear and anxiety underlying much of the mission and ministry of this synod. Many individuals and congregations are operating in a crisis, and many are focused primarily on the scarcity of resources.

Double outch.

Clergy and lay leaders will begin a balloting process this afternoon to elect a new bishop. They should have someone by late tomorrow or Saturday.

What will the new bishop face? Start with: poor clergy morale; declining membership; the need to possibly close hurting churches; the different needs of city, suburban and country churches; and the usual conflicts over homosexuality that dog every mainline Protestant denomination.

Several pastors told me in recent days that they need a bishop who will attend to their needs and the needs of their congregations, who will pay them visits and answers their phone calls. It doesn’t sound like a lot to ask — but a lot of people sound overwhelmed and uncertain about the future.

One line from the internal report struck me: Pastors feel they are expected to be both traditional and innovative. They are supposed to be old-time Lutheran pastors, holding on to tradition, and innovators who devise new ways to grow their churches and build exciting ministries.

I’m sure the same thing will be expected of the new bishop, on a much larger scale, and it won’t be easy.

Bouman was a popular fellow — energetic and engaging — who reached out to immigrants and those in need. Everyone seems to appreciate his efforts, but the consensus is that the synod’s core — its churches and ministries — now need to be streamlined, refocused and strengthened.

You can download the internal report from the top of this page.

iron.jpegOn the question of what is expected of the next bishop, the report notes:

The “Metropolis” home for superheroes Superman and Superwoman is often associated with New York City. These superheroes are expected to stop speeding bullets, be faster than a locomotive, and leap over tall buildings. The range of criteria which we heard in terms of the characteristics and expectations of the next bishop rivaled those of these superheroes.

Clarifying Muslim beliefs about dogs

Here’s a strange story out of St. Cloud University in Minnesota: A student left the school because he feared for the safety of his service dog.

Supposedly, he felt the dog was threatened by Muslim students who believed that dogs are unclean.

bilde1.jpegA school official said: “I think it was a misunderstanding where we didn’t really prepare either side for possible implications.”

The photo is of the student, Tyler Hurd, 23, and his dog, trained to protect him when he has seizures.

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations released a statement supporting the student and his use of the dog. Here’s the statement, which explains Muslims beliefs about dogs:

“The moral and legal need to accommodate individuals using service dogs far outweighs the discomfort an individual Muslim might feel about coming into contact with a dog, which is one of God’s creatures,” said CAIR-MN Communications Director Valerie Shirley.

Muslims believe the saliva of dogs invalidates the ritual ablution performed before prayer. For this reason, it has become a cultural norm for individuals not to have dogs in their houses – not because the dog is unclean.

The Prophet Muhammad allowed the use of dogs for protection and for hunting. He related several traditions (hadith) in which individuals were rewarded by God for protecting animals and punished for mistreating them.

Shirley mentioned that in 2007, a similar misunderstanding took place between Minneapolis cab drivers and passengers with guide dogs. After CAIR-MN facilitated dialogue between the two groups and cleared the misunderstanding, the Muslim taxi drivers offered free rides to attendees of the American Council of the Blind Convention in downtown Minneapolis. Abdinoor Ahmed Dolal, owner of Twin Cities Airport Taxi, said “Islam forbids us to turn away a blind passenger, whether they have a guide dog or not. Their rights come first.”

CAIR-MN says it will continue to work with the Muslim community in Minnesota to educate them about their Islamic and legal duty to accommodate those using service or guide dogs.

(Photo: Jason Wachter, St. Cloud Times)

Archbishop pays tribute to Space Hawk

The website begins “In what might be the oddest literary pairing of all time…”

Who am I to argue?

space-vulture-cover-lg.gifThe Catholic archbishop of Newark, John Myers, has teamed up with Gary K. Wolf, the creator of Roger Rabbit, to write a science fiction novel called Space Vulture.

Really. It’s true. Space Vulture.

They two are boyhood friends, and their book is an homage to Space Hawk, sci fi pulp they read as kids.

According to the Website:

Determined to recapture the exhilarating science fiction of their youth, they transport us now to the far reaches of the galaxy. In their fast-paced new novel, heroic Marshal Victor Corsaire and cowardly con man Gil Terry join forces with a beautiful and courageous widow and her two young sons to battle Space Vulture, the most villainous marauder in the cosmos.

Come along for the ride and discover all the adventure, suspense, action and fun that Gary and John first found in science fiction fifty years ago, and now share with you in this rollicking tale of the spaceways.

The Newark Star-Ledger talked to Myers about the book:

Myers said he would work on the book at night when he didn’t have appointments or at his summer residence in Pittstown, in Hunterdon County. The two would tease out themes and devise plots over the phone, and would edit text via e-mail. Myers tried, he said, to weave moral themes through the text. “This is not written from specifically a Christian point or view, or a Catholic point of view,” he said. “But it’s written from the point of view of a believer. There are things in this book that you wouldn’t find in most science fiction writing, like prayer. Some of the characters, when they’re in a tough scrape, pray, which is an act of faith.”

There’s also a conversion of sorts, for one of the characters, a tough-as-nails con man. “He was someone who has a conversion through the course of the story from being a selfish man on the take, to wanting to protect a couple of young boys who come into his custody,” Myers said.

Doing the priest shuffle

For those who follow these things, it’s no secret that morale among the Catholic priests of New York is not good.

Many feel isolated, overworked, and unappreciated. I have been repeatedly surprised in recent years by how often priests complain about the state of things (off-the-record, of course, as the vast majority fear being seen as insubordinate).

During the past few days, Cardinal Egan has directed the transfer of dozens of priests. Many are quite unhappy. Some are really unhappy. Morale, let’s say, is not going up.

Now, priests are reassigned every year. It’s part of diocesan life. But I’m told that many priests who did not expect to be moved got the news in a simple phone call from downtown, with no warning and little time to prepare. The priest personnel board had minimal input and did not know what was coming.

“A lot of guys are hurt and this will have a long-term effect,” one priest told me.

Of course, many people will see these moves as another sign that Cardinal Egan’s retirement is imminent — that he’s taking care of business in his final days. Speculation over when his retirement will be announced is close to rampant these days.

But I don’t know. Some people think that the cardinal will be around for a while. Egan may be 76, but Detroit’s Cardinal Maida is still hanging on at 78.

And when it comes to the Catholic Church, does anything ever play out the way it’s expected to? (Well, there was the election of B16…)

Aliens are (God’s) people, too

When the last head of the Vatican Observatory, Father George Coyne, was removed from the job in 2006, it was said that he was a little too enthusiastic about supporting the theory of evolution.

Now his successor is making news:

VATICAN CITY (AP) _ The Vatican’s chief astronomer says that believing in aliens does not contradict faith in God.

The Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, the Jesuit director of the Vatican Observatory, says that the vastness of the universe means it is possible there could be other forms of life outside Earth, even intelligent ones.

In an interview published Tuesday by Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Funes says that such a notion “doesn’t contradict our faith” because aliens would still be God’s creatures.

The interview was headlined “The extraterrestrial is my brother.” Funes said that ruling out the existence of aliens would be like “putting limits” on God’s creative freedom.

Defining stem-cell research in New York

Few have probably heard of the Empire State Stem Cell Board, which was created last year to promote stem-cell research in New York.

Promoting stem-cell research, of course, is not a simple matter, as there is a great disagreement over whether embryonic stem cells are off-limits.

The NY board has an ethics committee to deal with such matters. One of its members, a Catholic priest and bioethicist named Father Thomas Berg, has written a column charging that many government agencies may be biased against stem cell research that does not use embryonic cells.

Berg is executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, a Catholic think tank.

He writes:

Last December, our Ethics Committee unanimously recommended to the Funding Committee a brief six month moratorium on the funding of controversial research projects (such as the creation of new lines of human embryonic stem cells) so that we could have time to make recommendations on the serious ethical issues involved in such research. We were roundly rebuffed, however. Such a moratorium, they argued, “would send the wrong signal to the scientific community in the State.”

The ethics board meets again today.