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SLIDELL, La. (RNS) A portrait of Jesus Christ that hangs in the lobby of Slidell City Court violates the separation of church and state, according to a a federal lawsuit that was filed Tuesday (July 3) by the Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union.
The organization filed the suit in U.S. District Court in New Orleans after court officials decided to reject the ACLU’s deadline and leave the portrait in place.
Vincent Booth, acting executive director and board president for the ACLU chapter, said after filing the suit that he thinks the portrait, along with lettering beneath that says, “To know peace, obey these laws,” violates laws upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
City Court Judge Jim Lamz, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, said Saturday he consulted with a constitutional scholar at the University of Michigan before concluding that the display’s constitutionality remains an open legal question.
Lamz declined to comment further Tuesday, saying through a spokeswoman that he is forbidden to speak about pending litigation. He referred questions to Mike Johnson, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian organization that has agreed to represent the city court for free.
Johnson, who is based in Shreveport, did not return a call for comment, but he did release a statement.
“The ideas expressed in this painting aren’t specific to any one faith, and they certainly don’t establish a single state religion,” he said in the statement. “The reason Americans enjoy equal justice is because we are all created equal, endowed by (our) creator with certain unalienable rights. This painting is a clear reflection of the ideas in the Declaration of Independence.”
The ACLU is representing an anonymous complainant who said he has come into “direct and unwelcome contact” with the display, and he expects to do so again to fulfill legal obligations at the court. The display hangs in the court’s lobby, which has only one main entrance for visitors, according to the lawsuit.
The display has been in place since the courthouse opened in 1997 and has been maintained with taxpayer money, the lawsuit says. The display endorses the Christian faith, or specifically the Eastern Orthodox sect of Christianity, to the detriment of all other Christian denominations and all non-Christian religions, according to the suit.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Wesley United Methodist Church is a congregation of
a few hundred members in Marco Island, Fla. It is an active congregation
with ministries to the homeless, students and the elderly, and every
year it sends missionaries to Guatemala.
The congregation enjoys a prime location less than two miles from
Florida’s Gulf Coast and pays for it — $47,000 this year alone on
property insurance, which is about half what it would pay on the open
market.
With help from a statewide insurance plan of the United Methodist
Church, the congregation is able to invest more in local ministries and
outreach, said Ernie Stevens, chairman of the congregation’s finance
committee.
“Everybody is subject to something, tornadoes or floods or
hurricanes or mudslides or all these things that we hear happening to
people. So if we can share each other’s burdens,” he said, “it would be
a very beneficial thing for all of us.”
Across Florida, hurricanes have pushed property insurance rates
sky-high, forcing some homeowners from their homes and prompting new
legislation that aims to reduce rates. Churches have not been immune to
the burden, but United Methodist congregations are finding relief in a
plan that spreads risk among churches statewide, making insurance
available to coastal congregations like Wesley and alleviating costs for
all.
Now United Methodist leaders are joining with Catholics, Lutherans,
Presbyterians, Seventh-day Adventists and others to explore whether such
a plan could work nationwide.
The idea is actually fairly simple — the likelihood of a
catastrophic event devastating such a large area is not as great, so
when hurricane-prone churches share risk with churches in
earthquake-prone and tornado-prone regions, premiums go down.
“When we first met last year, I was astonished. I thought we would
all be talking about wind storm damage,” said Mickey Wilson, treasurer
of the Methodists’ statewide conference. “It’s just as difficult for
someone within a certain distance of the Missouri River to get
insurance. … It’s not just about wind storms. It’s about all sorts of
other catastrophes.”
The conversation began after the Catholic Church confronted its sex
scandals, said Peter Persuitti, managing director of Arthur J. Gallagher
& Co., an Itasca, Ill.-based insurance brokerage and consulting firm
specializing in religious organizations. Churches are unique and
misunderstood by some insurers, he said. They are nonprofits serving
communities on small budgets but are very accountable to their
communities.
“If I (as an insurer) think I’m underwriting a bad risk I will
charge more,” he said.
Eventually denominations began creating their own insurance
companies. Seven years ago, denominational leaders met to discuss common
issues. After Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and so many others swept across
the Southeast in 2005, these leaders began exploring the idea of
spreading risk, Persuitti said.
He explains it this way: If you could choose between insuring
churches in Florida and insuring churches in Florida, California and the
Midwest, you would choose the latter. That’s spreading risk.
Insurance rates have surged in recent years all across Florida. Now
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is pushing the idea of a national catastrophe
fund. Policyholders nationwide would pay into a pool that would help
cover costs no matter where a disaster occurred — a hurricane in
Louisiana, an earthquake in California or a tornado in Oklahoma, for
example. A similar fund already exists for floods.
The idea has gained some traction as disasters in recent years have
devastated areas well beyond Florida. Hurricane season started June 1,
and forecasters are predicting an above-average season, part of a
decades-long upswing in activity.
In Florida, the United Methodist Church insures all its
congregations through a plan that spreads risk statewide. Rather than
let congregations seek insurance on their own, the denomination’s
Florida Annual Conference takes all its congregations to market for a
$20 million annual fee. The fee is up from $4 million three years ago,
and the rest of the conference budget is only $12 million. But Wilson,
the treasurer of the statewide conference, said some churches couldn’t
get insurance on their own.
“It’s affected our ability to minister. It’s affected our ability to
do outreach,” he said of the climbing costs. “Having the entire nation
come into this would be just huge.”

Whether using dragons, firefish or sword-wielding soccer
moms, writers in the emerging category of Christian fantasy fiction are
clamoring for a spot in the marketplace.
Fantasy fiction in general commands a large following and copious
real estate in bookstores. But while Web sites and Christian writing
conferences brim with writers working on Christian fantasy, publishers
mostly are just starting to open to these new books.
The books may carry overt references to Jesus and Scripture — or
simply an understated Christian perspective with clean content, positive
role models, and unambiguous depictions of good and evil in the style of
C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien. Writers and fans use the term “Christian
speculative fiction” to include fantasy, science fiction or anything
other-worldly.
To raise awareness of Christian fantasy and promote his books, Bryan
Davis has spoken to 30,000 kids at public and private schools in the
last year — including 112 talks in two months, and 12 in one day.
Davis, a father of seven, writes the “Oracles of Fire,” “Dragons in
Our Midst” and forthcoming “Echoes from the Edge” series, all for youth
audiences; his newest book, “Enoch’s Ghost,” in the Oracles series, was
released June 15.
This month, he and three other authors will try to jump-start
interest in Christian fantasy with a nine-day road trip: the Fantastic 4
Fantasy Fiction Tour, stopping at bookstores, churches and home school
groups in the East and Southeast.
“There’s probably a lot of the Christian community that doesn’t even
trust us,” said Davis, who works to counter associations with Satanic or
shadowy influences. He also offers Christian readers guidelines for
choosing fantasy books.
“One of the main things to look for is whether or not the author has
a clear delineation of good and evil,” he said.
Another obstacle for Christian fantasy writers, according to Jeff
Gerke, a fantasy-loving freelance editor who writes novels under the
pseudonym Jefferson Scott, is that the Christian publishing industry has
yet to get behind the genre in a major way. Gerke says there are plenty
of readers and writers of Christian speculative fiction out there, but
the Christian presses mostly target evangelical, white women readers —
who don’t tend to be fantasy enthusiasts.
Popular Christian fiction stars Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye
(co-authors of the “Left Behind” series), Frank Peretti (“This Present
Darkness”) and Ted Dekker (“Thr3e”) command front-table display in
bookstores, but their success has created little demand from Christian
publishers for writers working on similar themes, Gerke said.
For Christian writers who think mainstream presses might be an
option, “It’s a very crowded area, and there’s debate about whether if
you write for a secular publisher are you able to be as Christian as you
want to be.”
Still, a few new releases include notable Christian fantasy
offerings.
From Harvest House, George Bryan Polivka’s “The Legend of the
Firefish” and “The Hand That Bears the Sword” contain overt Christian
themes; its hero is a failed seminarian struggling with his faith.
Polivka said his work is not typical fantasy. “In fact, there’s no magic
in it. There are lots of movements of God — miracles that happen at
just the right moment.”
Sharon Hinck’s “The Restorer,” first in a “Sword of Lyric” series
aimed at women, is told through the voice of Susan Mitchell, a mother of
four who is disenchanted with her ordinary life and wants to be like the
biblical Deborah. Then Mitchell is dropped into an alternate world where
people think she might be a Restorer, someone “with gifts to defeat our
enemies and turn the people’s hearts back to the Verses,” the books
says.
The same publisher, NavPress, also released Tosca Lee’s “Demon: A
Memoir.” And July brings “DragonFire,” the latest in Donita K. Paul’s
“DragonKeeper Chronicles” youth series.
Ginia Hairston, a vice president for Random House’s WaterBrook
division, said “there is a God type figure (in Paul’s books) but he is
not referred to as God. There are evil characters that certainly are not
referred to as demons.”
In September, WaterBrook plans to release “Auralia’s Colors,” first
in Jeffrey Overstreet’s “The Auralia Thread” series, and next March will
publish Christian singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson’s “Lost Jewels of
the Island King.”
Davis, the “Oracles of Fire” author, believes the proliferation of
writers working on Christian fantasy serves as a barometer of the supply
of readers hungry for it. The power of the fantasy genre, he said, is
its ability to create situations for heroism.
“Fantasy opens up the kind of vision,” he said, “to be able to see
beyond where we are.”

Washington – In a rare reversal of roles, 14 Catholic members of Congress are lobbying U.S. Catholic bishops to step up efforts to end the war in Iraq.
The lawmakers, all Democrats, wrote to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asking for a meeting to discuss how Congress “and the clergy can work together to mobilize public action to end the war,” according to a statement released Tuesday (July 3).
“As Catholic members of Congress we stand in unison with the Catholic Church in opposition to the war in Iraq,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said in a statement. “Yet to attain the ideal of peace, we must not only speak the words, we must take action.”
Other Catholic politicians lobbying the bishops include Reps. Dennis Kucinich, Tim Ryan, Charlie Wilson and Marcy Kaptur, all of Ohio.
“Throughout our nation’s history Catholics have been at the forefront of the fight for social justice,” the lawmakers’ statement said. “Now, at another critical moment, we respectfully urge the (bishops) to join with us in mobilizing support for Congress’ efforts to end the Iraq war.”
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the USCCB, said the bishops were considering the letter and that they have already made repeated statements about the war. “Certainly the bishops have made no secret about their concerns over the war in Iraq,” Walsh said.
Last fall, Bishop William Skylstad, president of the bishops’ conference, said: “In statements, letters and meetings, we have expressed grave moral concern regarding `preventive war’ and noted the moral responsibilities that our nation has in Iraq.”
In May, 18 Catholic U.S. representatives, including some who are now lobbying the bishops, criticized Pope Benedict XVI for suggesting that pro-abortion rights politicians can be considered excommunicated from the church.
” … Religious sanction in the political arena directly conflicts with our fundamental beliefs about the role and responsibility of democratic representatives in a pluralistic America,” the Catholic lawmakers said then.