Conscience clause omits Catholic hospitals

A proposed conscience exemption to federal health-care rules may require Catholic hospitals to include contraception in health-care plans for employees. The bill requires full coverage of women's contraception, including Plan B and ella (both opposed by pro-life groups); the exemption applies to nonprofit religious employers that exist to instill religious values and employ and serve people of the same religion. Catholic hospitals are nonprofit but meet none of the other requirements.

Hundreds of churches lose approval

HUNGARY A law that takes effect January 1 recognizes 14 faith groups and requires almost 350 others to re-register for state approval in order to receive tax breaks and to use the title "church." The Church of God, Methodists, Pentecostals, and Seventh-Day Adventists are among the excluded. In order to re-register, faith groups must prove they have 1,000 followers and have existed for more than 20 years; then parliament must approve them by a two-thirds majority. The dominant Hungarian Reformed Church welcomed the restrictions on new groups.

School can force Christian groups open

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that San Diego State University can refuse to recognize student religious groups that limit membership to fellow believers. However, the court said the school may have unfairly singled out a Christian fraternity and sorority while allowing other groups to use race or religion as membership criteria. The policy is more common than a broader one at Hastings School of Law, where the Christian Legal Society (CLS) lost a high-profile Supreme Court appeal last year. In a related case, the CLS dropped a lawsuit against the University of Montana School of Law after reaching a settlement that sets neutral criteria for funding groups.

UN clamps down on blasphemy laws

The United Nations Human Rights Committee updated its freedom of expression definitions for the first time in nearly three decades. Comment No. 34 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says that member countries cannot legislate speech in favor of or against specific religious groups (as do blasphemy laws). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also called for UN member states to implement a spring Human Rights Council decision emphasizing freedom of religion over religious defamation laws.

Future of Catholic foster care uncertain

The State of Illinois can decline to renew foster-care contracts with Catholic Charities, a Sangamon County circuit court ruled. The future of Catholic foster-care services was under review after Illinois legalized civil unions in June. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services refused to renew funding contracts with Catholic dioceses for the 2012 fiscal year because they will not place children with gay couples. Catholic Charities currently refers such couples to other organizations. More than 2,000 Illinois foster children will be transferred out of Catholic Charities' care.

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Religion law clamps down on freedom

ARMENIA Proposed revisions to religious laws would prohibit preaching to children under the age of 14 and would ban "soul-hunting," defined as "improper proselytism." Pastors and democracy advocates in Armenia criticized the new draft as repressive. Meanwhile, churches in Armenia and neighboring Georgia are debating which country owns churches and monasteries near the border.

Court: Discrimination suit can continue

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) cannot claim a ministerial exception to deflect a lawsuit, a North Carolina federal court ruled. Kimberly McCallum was formerly the only African American in the BGEA executive office. She sued the BGEA, claiming she was the only employee laid off in a downsizing shortly after she complained that black congregations were not asked to participate in a summer program. The court ruled McCallum's job description was administrative, not ministerial, so the BGEA cannot claim a ministerial exception to discriminate in hiring people who perform religious functions.

Church construction bill raises concerns

EGYPT A proposed law is designed to simplify the building process for churches and mosques. But both Coptic and Muslim leaders say its restrictions are impractical. The law would allow only one worship building per square kilometer, but Muslim leaders say many villages need more than that. Catholic leaders said a requirement that buildings be at least 1,000 square meters is similarly impractical. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies asked the cabinet to withdraw the bill because it covers only government-recognized religious groups. Copts have faced tight regulations and great difficulty building new churches, while Muslims face little difficulty building new mosques.

Restructuring and layoffs at Prison Fellowship

Prison Fellowship laid off 72 employees, named new top leadership, and cut funding to a partner program in three states. The inmate ministry named Michigan pastor Jim Liske ceo and former Atlanta pastor Garland Hunt president. Prison Fellowship also announced it would close the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a partner program that trains inmates for reentry, in Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas; the program will continue in Texas and Minnesota. Staff in Missouri and Arkansas hope to establish InnerChange as an independent nonprofit rather than shutting down.

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California regulates abortion speech

In a pro-life victory, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declared unconstitutional California rules that allow abortion-clinic employees to escort clients inside but prevent pro-life protesters from approaching. Policies that set an eight-foot bubble of space around women entering clinics must be enforced without regard to the message being presented, judges ruled.

First Christian elected to parliament

TURKEY Citizens have elected the first Syriac Christian ever to serve in the Turkish parliament. Less than 1 percent of Turkish citizens are Christians. Erol Dora is an independent backed by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party. Dora promised he would become the voice of the Syriac community. Only a few Christians have served in Turkey's other legislative seats over the past century.

Americans expelled for proselytizing

UZBEKISTAN The government expelled eight U.S. nationals for allegedly attempting to convert locals to Christianity. The Americans were in the Central Asian nation as English-language teachers and "carried out unlawful missionary activity to attract Uzbek students," according to a report from a state government website. The 90-percent Muslim country bans missionary work and has deported eight other people this year on missionary charges.

Islamic banking system draws controversy

NIGERIA A law legalizing an interest-free Shari'ah banking system has roiled the religiously divided nation. Christian groups have vehemently opposed the law as promoting Islam over other religions. The Central Bank of Nigeria denied the charge, claiming that any group or individual may apply for a license to practice non-interest banking. Media reports indicate a Christian group plans to test the law by creating its own banking system and submitting it to the central bank for approval.

Jesus statues create uproar

CROATIA, PERU Planned statues of Jesus are creating controversy in Europe and South America. In heavily Catholic Croatia, Split mayor Zeljko Kerum announced plans to erect a 129-foot-tall, privately funded statue that would be the tallest Christ sculpture in the world. Critics said the statue was a popularity ploy to gain votes. Meanwhile, departing Peruvian president Alan García ordered the construction of a 120-foot-tall Jesus statue in Lima. Critics said the money should have gone toward social needs.

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