Nature of sacraments takes center stage in Pennsylvania custody battle
Custody battles are almost invariably messy, so be patient with this story. Jana Hicks grew up Catholic, but married David Hicks in a Presbyterian church. Eventually, the two started attending an evangelical church, then an Assemblies of God congregation. In 1998, David and Jana split, but by then they had a daughter (identified only by the initial "M" in court documents). Custody was shared, with David Hicks getting the girl three out of four weekends. Most weekends, M went to First Assembly of God in Hermitage, Pennsylvania. That fourth weekend, it was off to a Roman Catholic parish with her mom, Jana.

In 2001, Jana and M started attending St. Sergious Russian Orthodox Church in Parma, Ohio. Last year, Jana decided to remarry, this time to a Russian Orthodox man. And she wanted M to be baptized in that church. But David opposed the baptism.

"This will be now the third religion introduced into [M's] life, and her being baptized in the Orthodox Church, ummm, I oppose that," David explained. "I don't think that that should happen at this time. I think she should grow up, and at her age, when she's old enough, she can make her own decision."

The Court of Common Pleas of Mercer County, Pennsylvania, agreed.

"Substantial harm would be caused to M.H. should [Jana Hicks] be permitted to have her baptized in the Russian Orthodox faith at this time," Judge Thomas R. Dobson ruled in June. "The harm would come from the significant increase in the level of stress." He continued:

While each party tolerates the other's religious choice, it is evident that each believes their chosen religion is the only true religion. The choice of which religion to have their daughter baptized into is viewed by the parties as a battle for the immortal soul of the child. Neither party appears willing to lose to the other party. … No good can come to any child placed into such an emotional situation.

Dobson ruled that M could decide for herself in what church, if any, to be baptized when she was 13. Picking any age under 18 is arbitrary, Dobson said, "but 13-year-olds, as a rule, are mature enough to make that decision. That is the age when children start to separate from their parents. They are also normally old enough to understand the consequences of their decision." Until M turns 13, he said, each parent "can continue to take the child to their respective churches and indoctrinate her as they see fit."

On Valentine's Day, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania overturned Dobson's ruling. "The speculative possibility of mere disquietude, disorientation, or confusion arising from exposure to 'contradictory' religions would be a patently insufficient 'emotional harm' to justify encroachment by the government upon constitutional parental and religious rights of parents, even in the context of divorce," wrote Senior Judge Zoran Popovich. "Stress is not always harmful, nor is it always to be avoided and protected against. … It is quite a leap of logic to convert [David Hicks's] ire (being "upset") at the prospects of M.H. receiving the sacrament of baptism to proof of a "substantial risk" of harm in the absence of delaying the baptismal ceremony to the age of 13."

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The cases included testimony from First Assembly of God associate pastor Michael Sabella on the church's understanding of the nature of baptism, but the courts never quite got to the crux of the matter: There's a huge difference between the Assembly of God's understanding of believer's baptism — that it's mostly an evangelistic act taken by the believer, declaring one's self to be a Christian — and the Orthodox Church's understanding — that it's a regenerative act taken by the Church, which is necessary for justification and entry into the life of the Church. David Hicks's church would reject the words of John Chrysostom, "It is through baptism that we received remission of sins, sanctification, communion of the Spirit, adoption, and life eternal."

The Assemblies of God and the Russian Orthodox Church stand together, however, against the Superior Court's apparent belief that baptism is just one more aspect of religious exposure. In fact, the churches would see this as the turning point in M's spiritual development up to this point. For the Russian Orthodox, this is the point at which M becomes a real Christian, the point at which she is received into the Church. For the Assembly of God, M's baptism into a church that rejects the doctrine of justification by faith alone and new birth through the Word of God alone is serious business (Sin? Heresy? Any AG theologians out there want to describe such a baptism?) Of course, the Assemblies of God isn't too reluctant to rebaptize, so David's church may just teach her that the Orthodox ceremony isn't the final word.

On one hand, Weblog doesn't want state courts making judgments where religious doctrine comes into play. Some here at CT think the courts should have nothing whatsoever to do with matters of religious doctrine, but Weblog isn't entirely convinced. The baptism may significantly change David Hicks's relationship with his daughter, and courts do have some leeway to exercise the wisdom of Solomon on such matters (not to suggest baptizing only half of M). Jurisdiction aside, is Jana's brinksmanship on this point even necessary? After all, it's not a sin to put off baptism in the Russian Orthodox Church until age 13 (Orthodox saints Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus both put off baptism until their 20s despite having Christian parents; Tertullian even criticized infant baptism). As Weblog said earlier, it's messy. But if this is precipitated more by Jana Hicks wanting to please the new man in her life than it is about the nature of baptism and conversion, Weblog expects that even the Russians would be saddened.

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Religion & politics:

  • White House denies former staffer's report | Faith-based initiative alive and well, says spokesman (White House)
  • Yesterday: Faith-wasted initiative? | How evangelicals helped to kill the faith-based initiative (Weblog, third item)
  • Hillary and crew delivering shout-outs to the center | Good people from the religious right and left can find common ground to solve common problems (Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune)
  • Courts have no place in religion | When the court can tell us when we can pray, where or if, and can tell us what we can or cannot display concerning religious expression, religious freedom does not exist (Jim Payne, News-Leader, Springfield, Mo.)
  • Christians drop death penalty support | The Christian Heritage Party has suspended its support for the death penalty to ensure the issue does not discourage voters (The New Zealand Herald)
  • Kyoto Protocol debuts | Should religion have a voice? (Sally Bingham, San Francisco Chronicle)
  • Group awarded AIDS grant despite negative appraisal | The Bush administration's global AIDS program last fall awarded a grant to promote abstinence in African youth to a politically connected Washington advocacy group, even though the expert committee reviewing requests for government money judged the request "not suitable for funding" (The Washington Post)
  • Falwell denied that many evangelicals opposed Iraq war | It'd have to be an awfully big phone booth (Media Matters)

Pat Robertson warns on judges:

  • Robertson: GOP must push judges through | Evangelist Pat Robertson indicated Tuesday that if Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist expects backing of religious conservatives for a possible 2008 presidential bid, he had better get President Bush's judicial nominees confirmed by the Senate, or at least voted on (Associated Press)
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  • Pat Robertson warns Democrats on judicial nominees | Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson warned on Tuesday that Democrats would pay at the ballot box if they oppose President Bush's judicial nominees (Reuters)
  • Robertson says Social Security looted | Congress "has systematically looted" billions of dollars that should have been set aside to pay future Social Security benefits, committing a sin in the eyes of millions of "people of faith" across the United States, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson asserted Tuesday (The Virginian-Pilot, Hampton Roads, Va.)

Same-sex marriage ban in Fla.:

  • Conservative, religious groups launch anti-gay marriage petition | Groups aim to block legal challenges (South Florida Sun-Sentinel)
  • 'Marriage' drive launched | A conservative coalition wants to use the state Constitution to define marriage in Florida as being between a man and a woman (The Miami Herald)


  • For Democrats, rethinking abortion runs risks | Democrats are encountering a mixture of resistance and retreat from abortion rights advocates in their own party (The New York Times)
  • Trojan horse | Unborn victims of violence bill has a disguised purpose for fundamentalists who want to revoke the right of American women to choose abortion (Editorial, The Charleston Gazette, W.V.)

The abortion debate in Australia:

  • Poll backs abortion laws | The push from some politicians and church leaders to curb abortions has received a setback, with polling showing that 56 per cent of Australians believe the present laws are "about right" and very few people wanting them toughened (The Age, Melbourne, Australia)
  • The insidious censorship of pro-life women | The pro-abortion lobby wants to make pro-life women invisible (Selena Ewing, The Age, Melbourne, Australia)

Church & state:

  • Property rights: not a given for churches | Religious groups don't generate taxes. Could that make them prime targets for eminent domain actions? (The Christian Science Monitor)
  • Federal judge halts bid to oust official who won't say Pledge | Court grants request by Estes Park, Colo., Trustee David Habecker for injunction blocking recall election that had been scheduled for today (Associated Press)

RLUIPA case dismissed:

  • Suit's dismissal shuts church zoning case | A federal judge has signaled the finale of a Maui church's religious discrimination case by dismissing a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit (Honolulu Star-Bulletin)
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  • Dismissed lawsuit wraps up Maui church dispute | Justice Department asked that its discrimination suit be dropped after settlement of first zoning dispute filed under RLUIPA (Associated Press)

Va. Board allows Bible in school, for now:

  • Va. school board okays keeping Bible classes | Public elementary schools will continue to allow Bible classes during class time while the local school board conducts a one-year review to determine if criticism of the practice by some parents is valid (Associated Press)
  • Bible classes get blessing of school board | Staunton keeps program but will improve options (The Washington Post)

Church & state in Virginia:

  • Prayer eyed in Virginia schools | Lawmakers want to amend the state constitution to open schools and other public places to prayer and other religious activities (The Washington Times)
  • Virginia's bizarre claim to the Supreme Court | Brief asserts that the Establishment Clause does not constrain the states (Marci Hamilton,

Missions & ministry:

  • 'Christians trying to convert tsunami victims' | VHP international president Ashok Singhal has cautioned the tsunami-hit fishermen community in Tamil Nadu against being "lured" into changing their religion (PTI, India)

Church life:

  • Church rejects U.S. aid | The Church of Uganda (COU) has rejected assistance from the Diocese of Michigan to the Diocese of Kinkizi over homosexuality, the Archbishop has said (New Vision, Uganda)
  • Please don't turn my church into a minimart! | When churches must sell their buildings, congregants often have strong feelings about appropriate reuse (The Christian Science Monitor)
  • Synod votes to remove vicars' freehold rights at churches | The Church of England moved cautiously to reduce the independence of the majority of its incumbent vicars at its general synod in London yesterday (The Guardian, London)
  • Okla. pastor hands $14,000 to congregation | A pastor handed out $14,000 to congregation members to invest for seven weeks, after which they are to bring the money and profits back to the church to be used in missionary work (Associated Press)
  • Lutheran bishop tenders resignation over adultery case | Bishop Ilkka Kantola, of the Turku Evangelical Lutheran diocese, has submitted his resignation. In a written statement to the Bishops' Conference, Kantola said he had lost the credibility required for performing his diocesan duties (Helsingin Sanomat, Helsinki, Finland)
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Church of England considers women bishops:

  • Church of England to mull women bishops | Eleven years after the Church of England began ordaining women as priests, its general synod met Wednesday to discuss whether to allow females to become bishops (Associated Press)
  • Vote on women bishops could split the Church | Church leaders were set to approve a process which could see the first woman bishop appointed in 2010 (The Evening Standard, London)
  • Synod to ponder women bishops (Reuters)

Religion & homosexuality:

  • Metaphysics, science, homsexuality | Are we talking biology or choice? (John Derbyshire, National Review Online)
  • Gay priests' lovers to get pensions | The Church of England is to grant partners of homosexual clergy who have registered under the Government's new civil partnership scheme the same pension rights as clergy spouses (The Telegraph, London)
  • A student's idealism, a college's decision | A student at New York Medical College is suddenly playing the role of campus activist, fighting university officials who have banned a gay student group from organizing on campus (The New York Times)
  • Request to edit title of talk on gays, suicide stirs ire | HHS is being accused of marginalization (The Washington Post)
  • Clergy central to battle over gay club plans | School chief asks ministers to keep their flocks calm (The Gainesville Times, Ga.)

Gay penguins:

  • Females flown in to p-p-p-pick up 'gay' penguins | The zoo's decision to introduce females has sparked a furious response from gay and lesbian groups in Germany (The Guardian, London)
  • Gay outrage over penguin sex test | Gay rights activists have protested at a north German zoo's plans to test the sexual orientation of six male penguins which have displayed homosexual traits (BBC)
  • Cold shoulder for Swedish seductresses | Trying to get three gay penguin couples back on the straight and narrow, zoo officials in the northern German town of Bremerhaven hoped Swedish penguin ladies would do the trick. So far, there's been no success (Deutsche Welle, Germany)

Sexual ethics:

  • Strategy 'tackles teen pregnancy' | Pregnancies among under 17s have fallen by more than 25% since a strategy to tackle the issue was launched, the Department of Health has said (BBC)
  • Bush's sex scandal | Abstinence-only education isn't about abstinence but about refusing to teach contraception (By Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times)


  • Men who accused priests of abuse settle lawsuit | The Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson has agreed to pay approximately $5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by 27 men who said they were abused by five priests and a deacon, including one priest who admitted molesting numerous boys, a lawyer announced on Tuesday (The New York Times)
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  • N.J. diocese, 26 men settle abuse claims | More than two dozen men who claimed they were molested as boys by Roman Catholic priests have reached a $5 million settlement with the Diocese of Paterson, their lawyer announced Tuesday (Associated Press)

Paul Shanley sentenced:

  • Shanley gets 12 to 15 years | Defrocked priest's accuser hailed as hero (The Boston Globe)
  • 'I believe true justice will find you after your time on earth' | Excerpts from statements by the victim (read by a prosecutor) and by his wife and father in Middlesex Superior Court yesterday prior to the sentencing of Paul R. Shanley (The Boston Globe)
  • Officials say strides made in security | Following the 2003 slaying of Paul Geoghan, a former priest convicted of sexual abuse, Shanley will probably be monitored much more closely than has previously been done (The Boston Globe)
  • Defrocked priest sentenced to 12 to 15 years in sex abuse trial | The prosecution hoped Paul Shanley would get life for raping a boy in the '80s. The defense lawyer says he plans to appeal the decision (Los Angeles Times)
  • Former priest is sentenced to 12 to 15 years in rape | Paul R. Shanley was sentenced on Tuesday for raping a boy 20 years ago in the suburban Boston church where he was pastor (The New York Times)

Clergy & child porn:

  • N. Va. priest charged in child porn probe | A longtime Catholic priest in Leesburg and other Northern Virginia communities has been indicted by a Loudoun County grand jury on a charge of possession of child pornography, which resulted from a worldwide crackdown, officials said yesterday (The Washington Post)
  • Sex arrest shocks man's friends | The assistant pastor of a Brea church, accused in an FBI sting of trafficking in child pornography, is said to be creative, well-liked (Los Angeles Times)
  • Jury indicts priest in Web child porn | he arrest of the Rev. Robert C. Brooks, 72, of Leesburg, was the latest in a massive two-year Internet child pornography investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents (The Washington Times)

Abuse priest murder trial:

  • Closing arguments set against Md. priest | The defense for a former priest accused of child sex abuse relied on psychiatrists and church members to bolster claims that the alleged victim — who shot the cleric three years ago — sometimes appeared to have trouble sorting fact from fantasy (Associated Press)
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  • Judge in Blackwell case worries about fair trial | He holds contempt hearing on 'other victims' remarks (The Baltimore Sun)
  • Accuser testifies in priest sex abuse case | Two years after being acquitted of attempted murder in the shooting of a Roman Catholic priest, Dontee Stokes is back in the same courthouse — this time to face the former cleric accused of molesting him (Los Angeles Times)

Former cheerleading coach fights for job:

  • Braswell: This is God's battle | Former University of Georgia cheerleading coach Marilou Braswell on Monday compared her battle against UGA's athletic department to David's biblical battle with Goliath and told a Christian men's group she wants all UGA coaches to know what they can and can't do (Athens Banner-Herald, Ga.)
  • Fired UGA cheer coach: 'This is God's battle' | Marilou Braswell, a 12-year cheerleading coach at UGA, was fired in August after a Jewish cheerleader claimed the coach had discriminated against her because of her religion (Associated Press)


  • Anti gay bias hits home | Alan Keyes owns one of the most frothing mouths of the Republican Party, which is really saying a lot on some moral issues (Derrick Z. Jackson, The Boston Globe)
  • Sister Lucia, 97, last survivor of visionary children of Fátima, dies | Sister Lucia was one of three Portuguese shepherd children who told of a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1917 (The New York Times)
  • Activists hope nun's slaying in Amazon is catalyst for change | As mourners laid her bullet-riddled body to rest Tuesday, environmentalists and colleagues of slain missionary Dorothy Stang seesawed between fragile optimism and angry skepticism over a question they had hoped never to consider (Los Angeles Times)

New Jersey Copt murder:

  • Kin ask U.S. to lead probe of murders | Relatives of a murdered Jersey City family called on the Justice Department on Tuesday to take over the probe of the killings (
  • Relatives of slain Coptics dismiss robbery as motive | The family members, in Washington to meet with members of Congress and FBI officials, acknowledged at a news conference they do not know who committed the murders or why. But they expressed concern that the Hudson County prosecutor may be prematurely discounting the possibility of a religious hate crime (The Star-Ledger, Newark, N.J.)
  • Armanious family relatives go to D.C. | Relatives of Hossam Armanious - who along with his wife and two daughters was savagely murdered last month at Jersey City, N.J. - said at a press conference here yesterday that the family was probably killed because of their religious beliefs (The New York Sun)
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  • Was religion the motive? | Relatives insist robbery didn't prompt killings (Associated Press)
  • Jersey City massacre kin seek feds' help | Relatives of the Christian Egyptian immigrant family butchered in their Jersey City home lobbied federal officials yesterday for help in unraveling the crime — which they believe was committed by hate-filled Muslim (New York Post)
  • Relatives of slain NJ family meet with FBI, lawmakers | Hudson County prosecutors office leading investigation (CBS)

Christians & Jews:

  • Getting tight with the Bible Belt | MK Benny Elon (National Union) invests more time and effort than perhaps any other Israeli in nurturing the relationship with Evangelical Christians in the U.S. (Haaretz, Tel Aviv)
  • There was a pogrom in Maghar | Can it be that in Israel, the state of the Jews - a people with much experience with persecution and pogroms in the name of religion - there could be such a thing as violence committed in the name of religion? (Amram Mitzna, Haaretz, Tel Aviv)


  • Archdiocese plans to close six schools | The Archdiocese of New York notified six struggling Roman Catholic elementary schools that they would be closing at the end of the year (The New York Times)
  • Mexican bishops call for Chiapas probe | Two Roman Catholic bishops called Tuesday for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate human rights violations in Mexico's Chiapas state, where an Indian rebellion still flickers (Knight Ridder)
  • Archbishop Gomez takes over reins | Archbishop José Gomez became the shepherd of the Archdiocese of San Antonio on Tuesday night, with a ceremony in front of the largest gathering of Catholic dignitaries in San Fernando Cathedral's 270-year history (San Antonio Express-News, Tex.)
  • Gomez is a good fit for religious cooperation in San Antonio | The spirit of religious cooperation runs deep in this city (Ken Rodriguez, San Antonio Express-News, Tex.)

Art & history:

  • Unclothed Christ draws protest | Bold naked images of Jesus in new relief sculptures installed in Christchurch's Catholic Cathedral have attracted angry protests from parishioners (The Press, New Zealand)
  • Fingerprint puts Leonardo in the frame | Art historians had always detected the style of Leonardo da Vinci in the mysterious painting Adoration of the Christ Child, which is regarded as a gem of the Renaissance. But there was never any proof. Now a fingerprint discovered in the original paint may finally solve the puzzle (The Guardian, London)
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  • St Patrick's travels 'like rock tour' | Historian Rob Vance said the Irish patron saint was an astute operator (BBC)
  • Is nothing sacred? | It's the holiest of Christian sites - the place where Jesus was buried. But the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has become a battleground where priests fight and monks stone each other (The Independent, London)

More articles of interest:

  • Huntington College offers a golden parachute to religion professor | The Board of Trustees of Huntington College, a United Brethren Church institution in Indiana, wants to get rid of John E. Sanders in the worst way (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
  • Stemming stem cell research | Do legislators want scientists to decide by themselves what is right, moral and ethical just so this grisly business can be done for profit and "prestige" in Massachusetts? It is unlikely legislators would grant such unrestricted power to any other profession or industry (Cal Thomas)
  • Ex-Raider seeks different kind of glory off gridiron | Napoleon Kaufman is carrying the rock for the Big Man now (Contra Costa Times, Fla.)
  • Christian broadcasters convene, revel in Bush victory | With millions of religious Americans pivotal in returning President Bush to the White House, Christian broadcasters gathered for their annual convention this week are loudly claiming credit for being the high-tech shepherds to that politically potent flock (The New York Sun)
  • Life on the streets | Christians sometimes sacrifice some small pleasure for Lent, in remembrance of Christ's 40 days of fasting in the desert. They might give up chocolate. Coffee. A TV show. Writer Phyllis Cole-Dai and photographer James Murray gave up just about everything (The Republican, Springfield, Ma.)
  • How Jesus told a good gag | It's not a book known for its comedic value, but look beyond the death, disease and destruction of the Bible, and lo, you will find a joke or two (The Guardian, London)

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Launched in 1999, Christianity Today’s Weblog was not just one of the first religion-oriented weblogs, but one of the first published by a media organization. (Hence its rather bland title.) Mostly compiled by then-online editor Ted Olsen, Weblog rounded up religion news and opinion pieces from publications around the world. As Christianity Today’s website grew, it launched other blogs. Olsen took on management responsibilities, and the Weblog feature as such was mothballed. But CT’s efforts to round up important news and opinion from around the web continues, especially on our Gleanings feature.
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Ted Olsen is Christianity Today's executive editor. He wrote the magazine's Weblog—a collection of news and opinion articles from mainstream news sources around the world—from 1999 to 2006. In 2004, the magazine launched Weblog in Print, which looks for unexpected connections and trends in articles appearing in the mainstream press. The column was later renamed "Tidings" and ran until 2007.
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