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Top Five: After Abortion Defeat, Will Nelson Back Healthcare Bill Anyway?

Plus: Ireland defends its abortion laws, evangelical group argues for civil unions, a shift in "middle of the road" congregations, and other stories.

1. Senate fight over abortion funding may continue after yesterday's vote

The Senate yesterday defeated a health-care bill amendment that would have ensured no federal funds for abortions. The vote was 54-45—ominous for the health-care bill's supporters, who need 60 votes to end debate. The anti-abortion amendment's chief sponsor, Nebraska's Sen. Ben Nelson (Bob Casey and Orrin Hatch were co-sponsors) had earlier suggested he'd filibuster the bill if his amendment failed, but a comment shortly after yesterday's vote now has some pro-lifers and other conservatives worried that he's backtracking.

The Huffington Post reported:

Nelson routinely seeks out packs of reporters and speaks at length until questions are exhausted, but following Tuesday's 54-45 vote, he slipped out the back of the Senate chamber to head for negotiations between five liberal and five conservative Democrats going on in a room across from Majority Leader Harry Reid's office.
A few reporters waiting outside the door asked him how it would effect [sic] his decision on whether to support the final effort.
"I want to continue to work on this," he said, not ruling out his support, at least "not at this point in time. I want to continue to work on the project we're working on … This makes it harder right now [to support the bill]. We'll have to see if they can make it easier."

(For what it's worth, the more reliable The Hill had the quote as "It's made it harder to be supportive. We'll just have to see what develops. We'll have to see if they can make it easier.")

However, earlier reports of Nelson's filibuster promise had similar caveats. "I will not vote to take it off the floor," Nelson told TalkingPointsMemo last week. But he added, "Now I don't know that it's going to come down to that, because I don't know that Stupak's not going to pass, number one. Number two, I don't know what kind of alternative legislation may be offered as an alternative bill. I don't know what the next steps are, but I've made it clear that whatever is finally considered has to have that language in it."

Politico had a report the same day as TalkingPointsMemo, in which Nelson said, "It [his amendment] is Stupak language. I've said at the end of the day if [the health-care bill] doesn't have Stupak language on abortion in it I won't vote to move it off the floor."

Politico's Carrie Budoff Brown continued: "Asked whether that meant he was intent on stalling the bill, Nelson said: 'I just said that, didn't I? This isn't anything new, I've said this for a long time and people are finally hearing it.'"

Sen. Barbara Boxer's summary to Politico? "I think he has said different things at different times."

Before the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters that he'd work with Nelson to find acceptable antiabortion language for the bill. "I'm happy to continue work with Senator Nelson," he said. "If in fact he doesn't succeed here, we'll try something else."

But Nelson (at least initially) seemed skeptical. "I had no Plan B," he told The Hill after the vote. "Maybe somebody else has a Plan B, but I don't see that this is one where there's really any room for compromise."

The Christian Science Monitor says the abortion fight isn't over. "On Tuesday evening, abortion-rights advocates enjoyed a moment of victory as the Nelson amendment went down. But they know they have work to do," Linda Feldmann wrote. Defeating the amendment, she wrote, "could be a temporary victory. If there's one thing supporters of abortion rights already know, it's that President Obama is not going to go to the mat for them in the battle for healthcare reform."

2. Ireland goes to the mat over its abortion laws

At the European Court of Human Rights, Irish Attorney General Paul Gallagher defended his country's anti-abortion laws against three unnamed women who complained they had to travel to Britain to end the lives of their unborn children.

Gallagher's defense was anything but pro forma, The Irish Times suggests. He argued that the laws were based on "profound moral values deeply embedded in Irish society," noting that three referendums had backed the regulations.

"As a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights—now incorporated into Irish law—the Government is obliged to seek to implement whatever decisions are made by the courts," the Times noted. "If successful, the court's ruling could lead to the liberalization of the State's abortion laws. At present, abortion is only permitted in the circumstances of the 'X' case, where there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother."

Reuters notes that in 2007, the court "ordered Poland to pay compensation to a woman who nearly went blind after being denied an abortion."

3. Evangelical Alliance Ireland supports "basic thrust" of civil unions bill

"We suggest that evangelical Christians should support the basic thrust of" Ireland's Civil Partnership Bill, the Evangelical Alliance Ireland said in a new statement. "The Government is seeking to legislate for greater justice and fairness for co-habiting couples, both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. As Christians we should support that stance. … We may disagree on the detail of the legislation but as followers of a just and compassionate God we can recognize the justice and fairness of providing some legal protection for the reality of both same-sex and opposite-sex cohabiting relationships."

The statement, which affirms that God intends sex to be "the ultimate physical expression of love between a man and a woman in the context of the covenant of marriage," notes that the bill "does not redefine marriage" and does not allow for same-sex couples to adopt children. But most of the statement argues its point from freedom of conscience. "Evangelical Christians have no automatic right to have their views preferred to those of others," it says. "Nor do we have a duty to try and impose Biblical morality on public life by force of law."

Another Irish evangelical umbrella group, Aonas (formerly the Association of Irish Evangelical Churches) disagreed with the Evangelical Alliance Ireland's position and with its assertion that it does not undermine marriage. (Evangelical Alliance Ireland is the national affiliate of the World Evangelical Alliance, and is therefore kind of the Irish equivalent of the National Association of Evangelicals.)

The Associated Press notes that members of Ireland's Fianna Fail party want an explicit conscience clause allowing businesses not to take part in civil partnership ceremonies. The Evangelical Alliance statement says Christians are unlikely to be forced to cooperate with such ceremonies, but adds:

Fighting for our rights on this one emotive and controversial issue is likely to be misunderstood and counterproductive. However, given the importance of the freedom of conscience issue it may be wise to begin engagement on the issue with the government and other interested bodies without narrowing it down to this one Bill.

4. 'Middle of the road' mainliners are now 'conservative'

Mark Chaves has a fascinating bar chart and post at Call & Response looking at a change in self-identification among PCUSA, ELCA, and Episcopal congregations. Playing off of a study looking at political polarization, Chaves wanted to know if churches have become as polarized. So he ran the numbers from the National Congregations Study on churches in three denominations that have been fighting over sexual ethics. "Theologically speaking" the question went, "is your congregation liberal, conservative, or right in the middle? The question was asked in a 1998 survey and again in 2006-2007.

"The striking fact is that the percentage of 'right in the middle' churches sharply declined, from 62 percent in 1998 to only 32 percent in 2006," Chaves writes. "This statistically significant decline is balanced by a sharp increase in the percent described as more on the conservative side, from 18 percent in 1998 to 46 percent in 2006. The percent of liberal congregations remains essentially stable. No other denominations moved in this direction. In all other denominations the relative size of these categories either did not change or the percentage of middle-of-the-road churches increased."

In the three denominations, it seems, "churches that lean in the conservative direction on homosexuality may have been pushed by national developments within these denominations to declare themselves to be more theologically conservative, even though their views may not have become more conservative over the last decade." But the pews might have become more conservative as the churches have had to take sides, he adds. "If churches are forced to choose sides on an issue, people will be more likely to choose churches based on which side they are on."

Worth noting: Only 9 percent of American congregations (Christian and otherwise) describe themselves as theologically liberal. And only 17% of congregations in predominantly white, mainline Protestant denominations say so. And the conservative congregations are getting bigger: "The percent of people in congregations that characterize themselves as theologically conservative increased from 53% in 1998 to 58% in 2006-07," the National Congregations Study notes.

5. Johannesburg church is at center of South Africa's refugee dispute

Thousands of Zimbabweans and other refugees have taken refuge in Johannesburg's Central Methodist Church.

"However, over the past year, the situation at the Central Methodist Church has grown controversial and has raised questions about the best ways to care for the homeless," Voice of America reports today. Well, "controversial" is a bit of an understatement. South Africa media have widely reported that teenagers are being pressured or forced to prostitute themselves to men in the church, some of them teachers.

"It is difficult to explain to someone that someone raped me," one teenager said

Now comes word that the government will remove all unaccompanied children from the church, and the church reportedly approves. In theory. Eyewitness News says the government is irritated that earlier attempts to relocate the children have failed.

More articles of interest:

  1. Canadian church group decries foreign aid cuts (AFP)

  2. Obama is criticized on AIDS program (The New York Times)

  3. Redding woman's Christmas carol initiative picks up allies (Redding Record Searchlight, Ca.)

  4. The devil's rejects: Indication that music critics are tiring of the standard "not your grandma's Christian music" (San Antonio Current)

  5. Russian court rules against Jehovah's Witnesses (Associated Press)

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