A national legal showdown now looms over the theological drift of the big American denominations and their increasing involvement in social issues. The U.S. Supreme Court announced June 10 that it would hear the case involving two Savannah congregations that pulled out of the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. (Southern), charging “revolutionary, fundamental, unlawful, and radical diversion from the Presbyterian faith.”

The immediate question is whether the two churches are entitled to retain their properties. Under Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopal government, properties in congregational defections normally are forfeited to the ruling denomination.

But much more significant issues are at stake. These revolve around how far a denomination can deviate from its originally stated purposes and still expect allegiance from its constituency. Indirectly, corollary questions arise over the mission of the Church and its role in the world. The two Savannah churches, Hull Memorial and Eastern Heights, have objected very strongly to Southern Presbyterian involvement in civil rights, civil disobedience, and the war in Viet Nam.

When the case first went to court, few outside observers thought very much of the churches’ chances. As Edward B. Fiske of the New York Times has pointed out, the most important legal precedent is an 1871 Supreme Court decision involving Walnut Street Presbyterian Church in Louisville, which tried to sever ties with its denomination in a dispute over slavery. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the parent body. The precedent was set that civil courts accept as binding the judgments of top ecclesiastical judicatories. Those who unite with a national denomination are recognized as giving “implied consent” to its government.

In 1907, however, a Georgia decision declared that the “implied consent” can be invalidated if the denomination is found guilty of “absolute” departure from its founding tenets. This decision has now been invoked in behalf of the two Savannah churches. A local court and the Georgia Supreme Court have ruled in favor of the congregations, and the denomination now seeks to have the U. S. Supreme Court overturn the ruling.

The case has sent some shudders through the American Protestant hierarchy. Should the decision be upheld, it would probably produce a rush of church withdrawals. Numerous congregations throughout the country are at odds with their denominations over theological issues, social concerns, and ecumenism. Even a reversal could produce new precedents and possible legal loopholes for dissenting churches.

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The U. S. Supreme Court will hear testimony after it reconvenes this fall. Other similar cases are pending.

Before the justices recessed for the summer, they also handed down a pair of important rulings affecting church schools. In a six-to-three decision, they upheld a New York law requiring local school districts to offer parochial-school students the loan of textbooks. In a separate case, the justices with only one dissent ruled that taxpayers under certain circumstances have a right to challenge acts of Congress on grounds of violation of the religion clause of the First Amendment; the case now goes back to a trial court.

Previously, on the basis of a 1923 court ruling in Frothingham v. Mellon, taxpayers had little or no standing in a federal court to challenge the constitutionality of federal expenditures. As Baptist Press put it, the new ruling did not nullify the Frothingham doctrine against taxpayers’ suits challenging federal spending, “but it did say that this ruling does not prohibit some cases in which the establishment and freedom of religion are involved.… So while loosening the rules on First Amendment court cases, the Supreme Court made it clear that it felt that government could provide public services to students in all schools without thereby furnishing aid to church schools or agencies.”

Spokesmen for Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State hailed the standing-to-sue ruling but minimized the significance of the textbook-loan decision and made no public comment on it.

In yet another pre-vacation ruling, the Supreme Court upheld by a 7–2 vote a Reconstruction Era law that extends equal rights to Negroes and other racial minorities in purchase, sale, and rental of housing. The case involved an interracial couple who say they were victims of discrimination when they sought unsuccessfully to buy a home in suburban St. Louis. Supporting the couple in friend-of-the-court briefs were the National Council of Churches and a group of high-ranking Roman Catholic prelates.


As 150,000 people filed sadly past the casket of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the National Council of Churches’ General Board held sessions nearby in New York City that signaled their desire for closer contact with the Roman Catholic Church and their commitment to liberal policies on the racial crisis and civil disobedience. Had Kennedy been present, he undoubtedly would have appreciated the hearty response the 119 board members gave their guest speakers, Archbishop Terence J. Cooke of New York and Poor People’s Campaign leader Andrew Young, whose rousing speeches highlighted the June 6 and 7 meetings.

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The NCC appearance of Cooke, celebrant the next day at the Requiem Mass for Kennedy, marked the first time a member of the Roman Catholic hierarchy had addressed the General Board. After a warm tribute to the late Senator (“We know that the soul of Robert Kennedy is with God but his spirit lives on …”), Cooke expressed his concern for Christian unity. “We are to our own sorrow divided,” he said. “Surely, then, we need to ask ourselves, Why? How? For how much longer? If Christ unites us in faith, hope, and love—as he surely does—then something other than Christ must occasion our division.” He commended the NCC for its “Crisis in the Nation” and “Priority Program for Peace” activities. Both before and after his address, he received a standing ovation.

Earlier, General Secretary R. H. Edwin Espy had reported that exploratory and long-range discussions on possible membership of the Roman Catholic Church in national councils of churches were under way in the United States and in eight other countries. He also referred to “the projection with the Roman Catholic Church of a major joint program on world development which if it materializes will mark another forward step in National Council-Roman Catholic cooperation.”

Interfaith cooperation was further seen in the board’s passage of a statement on sex education, jointly formulated by Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant-Orthodox representatives.

Coming straight from Resurrection City, Andrew Young of the Southern

Christian Leadership Conference commended the churches for being “our one ally in society” in support of the Poor People’s Campaign. He asserted, “Most of our government programs destroy the poor. Most government programs are genocidal. It is a genocide of the spirit, a crushing of the mentality of a people, denying them of their humanity. That is genocidal.” Young’s speech, which climaxed a day of reports on implementation of the NCC crash program on the “Crisis in the Nation,” was greeted with thunderous applause.

Dr. Charles S. Spivey, Jr., general executive of the Crisis program initiated by the board in February, told of NCC efforts to reduce tensions and deal with “white racism,” identified by the Kerner Commission Report on Civil Disorders as “a root cause” of recent riots. (NCC President Arthur S. Flemming called the Kerner Report “the most significant public document of my lifetime.”) Programs now in operation to combat white racism, said Spivey, include distribution of NCC curriculum materials in thirty-three denominations, other racial-crisis educational and publication efforts carried on by various denominations, financial aid programs for autonomous local civil-rights organizations, investment programs to help change “racial patterns in the church and community,” and selective buying projects by churches to influence hiring practices.

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United Methodist John P. Adams told of extensive NCC involvement in the Poor People’s Campaign. In addition to building a shanty in Resurrection City, NCC representatives have accompanied every caravan march and have been present at every demonstration in the campaign, to aid in communications. They have provided direct telephone and radio communication among SCLC strategists and organizers and also have published materials interpreting the campaign to the public.

Immediate objectives of the Crisis program, outlined by United Methodist Dr. Richard Nesmith, are congressional appropriation of funds to finance enacted legislation, passage of guaranteed-annual-income legislation, informing the citizenry on key election-year issues, improvement of police-community relations and reduction of the misuse of police power (“the white form of violence in our communities,” asserted Nesmith), support of local action organizations, particularly among blacks and other minorities, support for black churchmen, and development of emergency measures for urban crisis.

The General Board’s only sharp debate came after Dr. Truman Douglass of the United Church of Christ presented for ratification a policy statement on civil disobedience. The statement set forth the various courses “men seeking to obey God’s will have followed,” including “action in revolution against an entire system of government.” It said: “We recognize that when justice cannot be secured either through action within existing structures or through civil disobedience, an increasing number of Christians may feel called to seek justice through resistance or revolution.”

Episcopalian Peter Day offered an amendment to strike the “revolutionary” sections, claiming that they would “contribute to the atmosphere of violence in the United States.” He was opposed by black churchmen, including the Reverend James L. Cummings of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, who argued, “This is a means by which men can alleviate causes that make them suffer.” Dr. L. Doward McBain, immediate past president of the American Baptist Convention, pointed out the inconsistency between the civil-disobedience policy statement and prior NCC resolutions condemning the use of violence in Viet Nam. Nevertheless, Day’s amendment was defeated by a two-thirds vote. The policy statement was adopted, 81–6, with 15 abstentions, mainly from among Episcopal and Orthodox churchmen.

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The board also ratified a raft of other resolutions and measures:

Viet Nam—plea for a ceasefire by all belligerents;

Firearms Control—support of federal legislation to ban mail-order sales of all guns to individuals, set age limits for purchase of rifles (18 years) and pistols (21 years), require gun permits, and outlaw bombs, firebombs, bazookas, and other such destructive devices;

Telegram to President Johnson—commendation for his appointment of a commission to study the causes of violence, and support for a program to implement recommendations of the Kerner Commission Report.

The board also heard first readings of controversial policy statements on abolition of the death penalty, defense and disarmament, and selective purchasing by the church.

In the conference’s waning moments, a discussion of new directions in Faith and Order found three theologians differing in their selection of the principal theological issues that the Church should now confront. Boston University’s placid Professor J. Robert Nelson claimed studies should probe the meaning of human nature and consider an overall view of God’s relation to man, history, and nature. Fiery Paul Lehmann of New York’s Union Seminary disagreed, stressing that the Church shouldn’t “take the long look—God, man, history, nature—but look at where the bite is.” He felt the nip now comes in the issues of (1) the identity of a Christian in society, (2) power, and (3) the relation between piety and justice (“Justice and reverence—not law and order—is what is important”). United Church of Christ minister Lawrence Durgin doggedly called for development of a theology of corporate responsibility.

When NCC President Arthur S. Flemming initially convened the General Board meeting, members were bunched on one side of the room. He said, “I would like to convince some of those on the right to move to the left.” He may have succeeded more than he realized. The movement throughout the two-day session was leftward ho, all the way.

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Occasional breezes and passing clouds brought relief from the hot sun beating on Poor People’s Campaigners gathered for their Solidarity Day March June 19. Sitting, standing, and lying on the grass at the Washington Monument, they laughed, sang, and clapped through more than two hours of entertainment, mostly by Negroes. While helicopters buzzed overhead and planes approached National Airport, additional busloads of marchers arrived and police reinforcements stood by.

Despite the sun, singer Don Leace thought the crowd was too slow warming up. He told them to “start acting like” the Baptists many of them said they were. By the time a Detroit minister and Southern Christian Leadership Conference worker appeared, the crowd was hanging loose. The Rev. Esquire Hamilton called them to “love one another” and “let God rule in our hearts.” Then he crooned, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” as the audience clapped in rhythm.

Hemisfair Crusade To Be Televised

The compact HemisFair Crusade with evangelist Billy Graham drew a total of 94,900 persons to four services in the Alamo Stadium of San Antonio. Three of the services will be televised in color throughout North America in the late summer.

Some 4,326 persons recorded decisions for Christ during the weekend series in June. As in other crusades, young people made up a high percentage of the audiences. Many servicemen and their families attended also; there are several military bases in the San Antonio area.

Texas Governor John Connally, mentioned by some observers as a possible vice-presidential candidate this year, attended the first service with his wife and two sons. Coach Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys professional football team also participated.

Graham’s television specials from his May crusade in Portland, Oregon, were shown on more than 300 U. S. stations last month, the most he has ever scheduled. The evangelist conducts two television series a year, one at the beginning of the summer and one toward the end. Each costs his organization more than $1,000,000 but brings a flood of mail and financial support and, infinitely more important, reports of thousands of decisions for Christ.

The Portland series was also scheduled to be shown over about twenty-five stations in Australia. One of Graham’s associate evangelists, Leighton Ford, is planning to do a similar television series in Canada.

The ten-day Portland crusade drew a total turnout of 227,797. More than 7,000 stepped forward to indicate a new Christian commitment.

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Almost on schedule, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, SCLC official, herded the estimated 50,000 people to the Lincoln Memorial. Led by the SCLC president the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Resurrection City residents, those who accompanied a mule train, representatives of ethnic groups, and Father James Groppi, campaigners walked the mile singing “We Shall Overcome” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was a varied crowd that included young and old, hippies and businessmen, clergymen and nuns, Boy Scouts, teachers, and Negroes with African hair styles and dress. Many families came with small children in strollers or strapped to parents’ backs.

Marchers carried signs prepared by SCLC; “I Have a Dream” was one of the most popular. Washington’s Church of the Saviour delegation proclaimed, “Let not our wealth divide us; rather let us divide our wealth.” A nun from Minnesota, wearing a colorful Indian shawl over her habit, carried a sign declaring, “I care. But I do something about it.” Jewish groups carried signs in Hebrew and English; one quoted Leviticus 19:18: “Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbor.” Another sign said, “Let’s March into Hell for the Heavenly Cause.”

At the Lincoln Memorial, the program employed several clergymen. It began with an invocation by Rabbi Jacob Philip Rudin of the Synagogue Council of America. Later, Washington’s Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle prayed for “the courage of religious convictions in race relations.” He petitioned, “Teach us how to live together.”

Other ministers on the program were SCLC staff members. High point of the program was the appearance of Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was greeted with a standing ovation. The widow of the slain civil-rights leader called for “woman power” and love to combat the three evils of racism, poverty, and war.

Abernathy concluded the speeches with what he called a “mandate from God” in which he called for furtherance of human rights and asked for donations to the Poor People’s Campaign. He acknowledged the $50,000 gift of the United Presbyterian Church, presented by Dr. Edler Hawkins, former United Presbyterian moderator and first Negro to hold that post.

Solidarity Day was frequently compared to the 1963 march when King made his “I have a dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial steps. Twice during the day’s events, silence memorialized civil-rights workers killed since 1963, once just before Mrs. King spoke in honor of her husband. Other tributes to King included a song during the entertainment period: “Didn’t the angels sing … as they welcomed the soul of Martin Luther King!”

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One difference was noted about this year’s march. “Five years ago we stood here and pleaded,” Abernathy said. “Today we stand here and demand.”

Throughout the day, care was taken to include the needs of Puerto Ricans, Indians, and Mexican-Americans, as well as Negroes. Mrs. Martha Grass, an Oklahoma Indian, accompanied her speech with war whoops. Two New York Indians said the Creator, the Great Spirit, “is here with us today.” In fact, said Mad Bear, a “sign may appear today in the sky to show the Creator is here with us.”

The march almost got off to a bad start when violence flared the night before. Several arrests were made at the White House as a group from Resurrection City marched to Congressman Wilbur Mills’s apartment. And at Resurrection City several people were injured in unrelated incidents. Although Solidarity Day was for the most part orderly, two incidents marred the calm. A Negro stabbed a white youth and another young man was arrested for carrying a gun at the monument.

On the morning of Solidarity Day several Washington churches held services, with attendance at many reported in the hundreds.

The National Council of Churches reported no estimate of the number of people who responded to their call for support for the march. But church banners proclaimed the attendance of many religious groups, including the United Methodist Church, American Lutheran Church, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, American Baptist Church, Society of Friends, Baptist Peace Fellowship, Catholic Interracial Council of Boston, and Seminarians Organized for Racial Justice.


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