Belief Beat

The Town Council in in Gilbert, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb of about 217,000 residents (and currently one of the fastest growing municipalities in America) is moving quickly to change a zoning code that technically prohibits Bible study groups and other “religious-assembly uses” in single-family homes.

Gilbert officials have received hundreds of critical emails in the past few months, along with unprecedented media scrutiny, ever since the zoning administrator upheld a cease-and-desist order issued to the evangelical Oasis of Truth Church for its gatherings of about a dozen people at a pastor’s home. The town’s apologetic mayor and interim manager apparently worshiped with the group on Sunday, in a show of support.

The zoning change is expected to be discussed by the town council next week.

In my own reporting, I’ve noticed that church-state conflicts play out a bit differently in communities than they do on a national scale, perhaps because people know each other and there are fewer factions to appease? Several years ago, I was surprised that Redwood City, a San Francisco suburb, had opening prayers at its City Council meetings, but no one else seemed to bat an eye as long as different denominations each got a turn.


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The health care reform package nearing a vote in Congress has officially divided America’s Catholics: their hospitals endorse the plan, their bishops “regretfully” oppose it.

The president of the Catholic Health Association, which represents more than 600 hospitals, calls the bill a “major first step” that will “make the lives of millions more secure, and their coverage more affordable.” The legislation isn’t perfect, she notes, but the CHA is satisfied the bill will not federally fund abortions (patients would pay for the procedure’s insurance coverage separately), and will increase support for pregnant women and adoption assistance.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops disagrees, unmoved by more than 5,000 emails reportedly sent in by lay Catholics lobbying the group to drop its opposition to health care reform. The Archbishop of Denver calls the bill morally flawed for falling short in three areas: “the exclusion of abortion funding and services; adequate conscience protections for health-care professionals and institutions; and the inclusion of immigrants.”

Basically, the same concerns that have plagued politicians and other faith groups for more than a year — with President Obama and Democratic leaders now pushing for a vote by week’s end anyway. Stay tuned, and share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

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America’s friendship with Israel is at risk, mainstream and Jewish media outlets are reporting, due to Israel’s announcement (made during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit, of all times) that it will build 1,600 more housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem — the proposed capital of the Palestinian state.

Despite rebukes and warnings from some U.S. officials and Jewish organizations, including a Huffington Post op-ed by the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted today that the construction is not a matter for negotiation.

If friends don’t let friends drive drunk, NYT columnist Thomas Friedman writes, then America should not allow Israel to continue to behave in a way that indicates “sheer madness” regarding the peace process. He thinks Biden should have gone home when the construction plans were unveiled. What do you think?

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The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has concluded that New York City’s Department of Education wrongly fired Debbie Almontaser, a Muslim American from Yemen, discriminating on the basis of her race, religion and national origin. Almontaser was the founding principal of the Arabic-themed Khalil Gibran International Academy, a dual-language public school that opened in 2007, but was pressured to resign due to public outrage over her attempts to explain the word “intifada” — most commonly associated with the Palestinian uprising against Israel — does not mean “terrorism.” (Read this story for more details – it’s written by Andrea Elliott, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her series about an immigrant imam’s struggles in America.)

The Council on American-Islamic Relations and other groups representing Arab and Muslim Americans, including, have applauded this “good news,” but the DOE maintains that it did not discriminate against Almontaser and will not reinstate her; Almontaser is appealing her lawsuit against the city. We’ll see where this goes.

As a New Yorker and a religion reporter, I wasn’t surprised when this controversy erupted, given that