Update on the latest religion news

PRESBYTERIANS-GAY MARRIAGE

Presbyterians’ new marriage definition includes gay marriage

NEW YORK (AP) — The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has approved a new definition of marriage that includes gay marriage.

The denomination is now the largest Protestant group to recognize same-sex marriage as Christian and allow same-sex weddings churchwide.

The new definition was endorsed last year by the denomination’s top legislative body as an amendment to the church constitution. The change required approval from the majority of regional bodies or presbyteries. The Covenant Network of Presbyterians says the critical vote came Tuesday from the Palisades Presbytery in New Jersey.

The denomination has about 1.8 million members and 10,000 congregations nationwide.

The church earlier eliminated barriers for ordaining gays, and last year, allowed ministers to preside at gay weddings with congregational approval in states where the unions are legal. The new definition takes effect June 21.

Sound:

331-v-31-(Steve Coleman, AP religion editor)–The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has approved a new definition of marriage that includes gay marriage. AP Religion Editor Steve Coleman reports. (17 Mar 2015)

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332-c-11-(Steve Coleman, AP religion editor)-“effect June 21st”-AP Religion Editor Steve Coleman reports that the nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination is redefining marriage to include gay marriage. (17 Mar 2015)

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RELIGIOUS FREEDOM PROTEST

Protesters rally against Ga. ‘religious freedom’ bill

ATLANTA (AP) — Demonstrators have gathered at the Georgia Capitol to protest a religious rights bill that critics say could lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Protesters on Tuesday rallied in Atlanta against a Senate bill that would forbid state government from infringing on a person’s religious beliefs unless the government can prove it has a compelling interest. The bill has drawn both support and opposition from clergy members.

The American Civil Liberties Union has said similar bills have been introduced this year in more than a dozen states as conservatives brace for a possible U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

AMERICAN IDOL-CHURCH

4 American Idol finalists got their start singing in church

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Four of this year’s ten finalists on American Idol say the first time they ever sang in public was in church.

Maddie Walker says she first took the stage at the age of three, singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in front of her entire congregation.

Clark Beckham says he was about eight years old when he first sang for an audience. He recalls it was “a solo at this big church, about 2,000 or 3,000 people.”

Tyanna (tee-AH’-nah) Jones says her first public performance, at age five, was a duet she sang at a church she visited with their mother. Jones says she and her older brother sang “Joyful Joyful” from the movie “Sister Act 2.”

Rayvon Owen recalls that in the church where he made his singing debut at the age of 5 or 6, “the spirit just moved” and he realized how much power music can have.

They’ll all sing on Fox’s American Idol this Thursday.

Sound:

307-a-06-(Maddie Walker, American Idol finalist, in AP interview)-“my entire church”-American Idol finalist Maddie Walker remembers her first public singing performance. ((longer version of cut used in wrap)) (17 Mar 2015)

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306-w-35-(Steve Coleman, AP religion editor, with American Idol finalists Maddie Walker, Clark Beckham, Tyanna Jones and Rayvon Owen)–Four of this year’s ten finalists on American Idol say the first time they ever sang in public was in church. AP Religion Editor Steve Coleman reports. (17 Mar 2015)

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308-a-09-(Clark Beckham, American Idol finalist, in AP interview)-“or 3,000 people”-American Idol finalist Clark Beckham says the church stage is where his singing career started. ((longer version of cut used in wrap)) (17 Mar 2015)

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309-a-05-(Tyanna (tee-AH’-nah) Jones, American Idol finalist, in AP interview)-“my mom visited”-American Idol finalist Tyanna Jones says the church was her first singing stage. ((cut used in wrap)) (17 Mar 2015)

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310-a-06-(Rayvon Owen, American Idol finalist, in AP interview)-“power music had”-American Idol finalist Rayvon Owen says he was five years old when he sang for the first time publicly at his church. ((cut used in wrap)) (17 Mar 2015)

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TEACHERS GOOD FRIDAY LAWSUIT

Teachers in Rhode Island city sue to observe Good Friday

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Teachers in Cranston, Rhode Island, have filed a lawsuit against the city’s school department, alleging their requests to observe Good Friday have been deliberately and improperly denied.

Liz Larkin, president of the Cranston Teachers Alliance, says about 200 teachers contacted the union to report that they were being prevented from taking the day off, although they had provided more than the contractually required 24 hours’ notice.

Larkin says that last fall, teachers’ requests to observe the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah were approved.

School superintendent Judith Lundsten said in a statement Tuesday that the teachers’ contracts specify they may take a holiday if they are required to attend religious services during the school day. Because Good Friday has “no required services,” Lundsten said, their requests were denied.

NUDE SUNBATHER

Nude backyard sunbather takes plea deal in lewdness case

FARMINGTON, Utah (AP) — A 77-year-old Utah man who was charged with lewdness after sunbathing nude in his backyard has agreed to a plea deal that keeps his record clean as long as he wears a swimsuit.

Myron Lee Kipp pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges in Farmington. But under the terms of the deal with prosecutors, the pleas won’t be recorded if Kipp stays covered over the next year.

Last year, police said children could see the nude Kipp from a church parking lot behind his house, which has a chain-link fence without privacy slats. When an officer approached him, Kipp said he could do what he wanted in his own backyard, according to court records.

He was arrested and charged with seven misdemeanor counts of lewdness, four involving a child.

INVESTMENT SCHEME-CHURCHES

Man convicted of swindling churchgoers sentenced to prison

ATLANTA (AP) — Federal prosecutors say a businessman accused of swindling churchgoers in an investment scheme has been sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison.

Authorities say 32-year-old Ephren Taylor II of Overland Park, Kansas was sentenced Tuesday to 19 years and seven months.

Prosecutors have said Taylor, former chief executive of North Carolina-based City Capital Corporation, convinced members of mostly African-American churches across the country to invest in small businesses and used their money to pay personal expenses. Prosecutors say more than 400 people invested more than $16 million in the scheme.

Taylor’s accomplice, 46-year-old Wendy Connor of Raleigh, North Carolina has also been sentenced to five years in prison.

Taylor is ordered to pay more than $15.5 million in restitution. Connor is ordered to pay more than $5.8 million in restitution.

MIDEAST-CHRISTIANS

Syrian, Iraqi Christians plead for international assistance

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian and Iraqi Christians have pleaded for more international assistance from new homes in Lebanon where they recently arrived after fleeing attacks by militants from the Islamic State group.

They spoke in two Beirut churches where they lined up to receive food baskets and other humanitarian assistance from a non-profit organization called In Defense of Christians (IDC), whose mission is to protect Christians in the Middle East.

IS overran a cluster of Assyrian villages last month, taking at least 220 Christians hostage. Around 25 have been released, but the fate of the remaining captives is unclear.

The militants who control about a third of Iraq and Syria have also targeted cultural heritage sites from the once-mighty Assyrian Empire.

Thousands of Christians have trickled into Lebanon from Iraq and Syria after being forced to choose between leaving, facing death or paying a tax on non-Muslims.

PAKISTAN-CHURCH BOMBINGS

Pakistan deploys troops after riots over church attacks

LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — A Pakistani police officer says paramilitary troops were deployed to prevent more rioting by minority Christians after the deadly Taliban church attacks in the eastern city of Lahore.

Lahore’s police chief, Amin Wains, says the soldiers fanned out on the streets Tuesday as funerals of the last of the victims were underway. He said those attending the burial services went through strict security checks.

The twin Taliban suicide bombings struck two churches in a Christian neighborhood of Lahore on Sunday, killing 17 people.

The attack set off two days of rioting in which angry Christians burned to death two people they suspected of being involved in the bombings, and two Christian protesters died after being hit by a car that tried to drive through their road block.

Sound:

279-r-05-(Christian mourner weeping, outside funeral for church bombing victim)–Sound of a Christian mourner weeping outside a funeral for one of the church bombing victims. (17 Mar 2015)

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278-a-10-(Christian Pastor Manual Mani, in AP interview)-“scared of anybody”-Pastor Manual Mani says Pakistani Christians won’t lose faith because of the church bombings. (17 Mar 2015)

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INDIA-CHRISTIAN FEARS

Rape of nun, church attacks make Indian Christians anxious

NEW DELHI (AP) — Prime Minister Narendra Modi says he is “deeply concerned” about the rape of a nun and the destruction of a church in India, but Christian say his words do little to dispel the fear in their community since his right wing Hindu government came to power.

A Christian leader, John Dayal, said Tuesday that Christians in the country were feeling deeply vulnerable.

Over the weekend an elderly nun was gang-raped in eastern India. The men who attacked the Convent of Jesus and Mary School in West Bengal state also ransacked the chapel and destroyed holy items.

A day later, a church in India’s Haryana state was destroyed, and reports said the vandals planted a flag with the name of the Hindu god Rama.

MYANMAR-BUDDHA IMAGE ARREST

Myanmar court jails New Zealand man for insulting Buddha

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — A Myanmar court has sentenced a New Zealand bar manager and his business associates to two years and six months in prison for insulting Buddhism over a flyer that showed a psychedelic depiction of Buddha wearing headphones.

The trial of V Gastro manager Philip Blackwood, bar owner Tun Thurein and employee Htut Ko Ko Lwin came as the predominantly Buddhist nation grapples with a surge of religious nationalism, including violence against members of the minority Muslim community.

The three men were sentenced to two years of hard labor for insulting religion and six months for disobeying an order from a public servant.

They were arrested in December after the image was used to promote a tapas bar and lounge.

Sound:

280-a-14-(Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, in AP interview)-“more witch hunts”-Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, says Myanmar’s government was unwise to sentence three men to prison for insulting Buddhism. (17 Mar 2015)

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CANADA-FACE VEIL

Canadian lawmaker apologizes for veil statement

TORONTO (AP) — A lawmaker from Canada’s governing Conservative party has apologized for saying women who wish to wear a face veil while swearing the oath of citizenship should stay where they came from.

Parliamentary member Larry Miller made the comments on a radio show Monday. He said he was baffled about a Federal Court ruling overturning a ban on the wearing of niqabs (nih-KABZ) during citizenship ceremonies.

On Tuesday, Miller said he stands by his view that would-be Canadians taking the oath must uncover their face. But he added, “I apologize for and retract my comments that went beyond this.”

TEACHER-TALIBAN REMARKS

Teacher accused of calling Muslim student a Taliban

WESTON, Fla. (AP) — A South Florida high school teacher is being suspended without pay for a week after being accused of calling a Muslim student a Taliban.

The Broward School Board approved the suspension Tuesday against Cypress Bay High School teacher Maria Valdes. She must also attend diversity training. The 14-year-old boy’s father wanted Valdes fired or suspended for a year.

Superintendent Robert Runcie said he filed an administrative complaint against the 64-year-old French teacher immediately after hearing about the incident. According to the complaint, Valdes made several Taliban references toward the boy, who is of Lebanese and Moroccan decent. At least one of the comments included a slur.

AMISH ID

Senate panel advances bill for Amish photo-less ID cards

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — An Indiana Senate committee has unanimously passed a bill allowing a religious exemption from photographs on state identification cards.

The homeland security committee approved the measure that would allow the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to issue a photo-less ID to applicants who have sincere religious objections to having their picture taken.

The bill’s author, state Rep. Robert Morris, says facial recognition technology would instead capture a scan to be kept on record.

Indiana’s Amish population can’t access outside businesses like banks and pharmacies without some kind of state identification. Supporters say the proposal will remedy that issue, although critics fear it will increase the use of false or fake IDs.

The measure now goes to the full Indiana Senate for consideration.

FUNERAL PROTEST-LAWSUIT

Trial starts in lawsuit over Nebraska funeral protest law

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A Westboro Baptist Church member says law enforcement officials often harass and even threaten members of her group for exercising their right to protest at Nebraska funerals.

Rebekah Phelps-Davis testified on the first day of trial in Westboro’s lawsuit challenging a Nebraska law limiting funeral protests that the law requiring demonstrators to stay at least 500 feet from a funeral service is selectively enforced, making it unconstitutional.

The Topeka, Kansas-based church protests at funerals throughout the country using anti-gay chants and placards because it believes God is killing U.S. military members and others for defending a nation that tolerates homosexuality.

Phelps-Davis said that in Nebraska, church members are often kept much farther from funeral services than counter-protesters, who are allowed to get as close as they want.

MONSIGNOR METH

Connecticut priest who ran meth ring pleads for leniency

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A suspended Roman Catholic priest who authorities say dealt pounds of methamphetamine and bought a sex shop to possibly launder his drug money is asking a federal judge for leniency when he is sentenced next week.

Monsignor Kevin Wallin’s public defender filed a sentencing request in federal court in Hartford. It cited Wallin’s three decades of charitable service as well as more than 80 letters of support, including one from the late Cardinal Edward Egan.

The 63-year-old Wallin pleaded guilty in 2013 to a methamphetamine conspiracy charge and agreed to a possible prison sentence of 10 to 11 years. Sentencing is scheduled for March 24.

Wallin is now asking for four years in prison and 500 hours of community service. Prosecutors want at least a 10-year prison sentence.

OFFICER CHARGED

DC police officer, pastor charged with sex abuse of teen

WASHINGTON (AP) — Washington D.C. police have charged an officer who is also a pastor with sexually abusing a teenage girl who attended his church.

Police say 45-year-old Darrell Best of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, was arrested Monday night and charged with first-degree sex abuse of a minor.

On Saturday, police say a 16-year-old girl reported that Best, the pastor of her church, abused her three times, starting in December. A warrant was issued on Sunday. Police say Best, the pastor at God – A Second Chance Ministry Church in southeast Washington, was off duty during the incidents.

A police spokeswoman tells The Washington Post that Best has served on the force for 25 years and is now on administrative leave.

Police say detectives are continuing their investigation.

AUSTRALIA-BISHOP CHARGED

Australian archbishop charged with concealing child abuse

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A Roman Catholic archbishop in Australia has been charged with covering up for a pedophile priest during the 1970s.

Archbishop of Adelaide Philip Wilson said in a statement he is disappointed that New South Wales state police decided to charge him on Tuesday with concealing a serious child sexual abuse offence. Wilson says he will fight the charge, which carries a potential 2-year prison sentence.

The charge alleges he failed to report child sex abuse carried out by priest James Fletcher during the 1970s when they both served in the town of Maitland, north of Sydney.

Fletcher died in prison aged 65 in 2006, a year into an almost eight-year sentence for raping an altar boy between 1989 and 1991.

Wilson is to appear in court on April 30.

IRAN-FESTIVAL OF FIRE

Iranians defy hard-liners to mark ‘Festival of Fire’

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iranians are defying Islamic hard-liners to celebrate the “Festival of Fire,” a nearly 4,000-year-old Persian tradition.

In Tehran, people lit bonfires in public places, set off fireworks and sent wish lanterns floating into the night sky as part of an annual ritual that dates back to at least 1700 B.C. and is linked to Zoroastrianism.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, hard-liners have discouraged the celebration, viewing it as a pagan holdover from pre-Islamic times. Police warned revelers to avoid major streets and squares but have not moved to disperse them.

The holiday comes ahead of Nowruz, the Persian new year, which will be celebrated on March 21.