The Gossip Ends Here
Authors, actors and religious leaders team up to silence
According to the National Education Association, 160,000 children skip school
each day because of intimidation by their peers. In a similar report, the
Journal of the American Medical Association reveals that almost a third of 6th
to 10th graders have experienced some kind of bullying.
Disturbing statistics like these contribute to a growing need to address the
issue of hurtful words. WordsCanHeal (www.wordscanheal.org),
a new non-profit group, is doing just that. Earlier this year, WCH launched its
anti-gossip campaign, which has already garnered the support of renowned
authors, celebrities and church leaders.
“The goal of the campaign is to promote the value and practice of
ethical speech in order to improve our democracy, build mutual respect, honor
and dignity in our country,” says Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, public relations
consultant. The WordsCanHeal campaign includes posters, print ads and television
spots on ABC, NBC, FOX, CNN and other stations.
“In the post-Columbine era we need to reduce gossip and verbal abuse
that is behind so much pain in our society,” says Co-Executive Director
Irwin Katsof. “The first step is for people to acknowledge that gossip and
verbal abuse cause real pain. Once people admit they have a problem with gossip,
they can take steps to improve their lives and the lives of the people they love
Katsof is the author of several books including Powerful Prayers–one
of the 10 Best Selling Religious Books in 1999–and is also the Executive
Director of The Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah. He is joined by Senators Harry
Reid, Sam Brownback, Tom Daschle and John McCain, who are proposing a “WordsCanHeal
Day.” The campaign has also attracted the support of well-known celebrities
and authors, including Jack Canfield, Tom Cruise, Harry Reid, John Gray, Goldie
Hawn, Florence Henerson, Bette Midler, Rene Russo and Jerry Stiller.
Dr. Robert H. Schuller, host of Hour of Power, has also joined the
“I am convinced that words have enormous power,” he says.
“They are either bombs or balms. They level us or lift us. They carry with
them power to connect with the memory system that can release healing powers or
WordsCanHeal is working to inspire at least 100,000 people to sign the
anti-gossip pledge. Those who do agree to think more about the words they use;
replace them with words that encourage, engage and enrich; see how gossip hurts
people; and work to eliminate it from their lives.
Braille Ministries Reach Across Geographic, Faith Borders
At St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Dallas, Texas, volunteers produce more than
1,000 Braille books of the Bible each year and ship them to the blind in
southern India. Ironically, none of the workers is blind, much less knows the
Malaysian language in which the books are printed, according to a recent Dallas
Morning News profile. However, none of these skills is required by
California-based Lutheran Braille Workers of America Inc. (www.lbwinc.org),
a group that for more than five decades has provided Bibles and selected
Christian materials in over 40 languages. The only criteria to become a ministry
member is a willingness to devote a few hours per week to fulfill orders
received from the California headquarters.
The St. Andrew Braille ministry is one of more than 200 locations nationwide.
Elsewhere, volunteers at the LaPuente, Calif. work center recently celebrated a
10-year anniversary. To date, this group has produced nearly 400,000 pieces of
literature. In Saginaw, Mich., volunteers produced almost 2,000 Braile books–in
Spanish, Malayalam, English, Portugese and Burmese–in 15 months.
New work centers continue to develop as well, most recently in Cincinnati,
Ohio; Poplarville, Miss.; and Sun City West, Ariz.
Since St. Andrew’s Braille ministry was started 2 1/2 years ago, volunteers
say they have learned a great deal about where the books they make are going and
the people who receive them. Books are produced strictly in the Malayalam
language native to the coastal state of Kerala, located on the southwestern tip
of India. Here, Christians make up a very small percentage of the population,
which is dominated by Hindus and Muslims.
On the retail market, a complete Braille Bible printed in English would cost
about $800, and a Spanish Bible would cost about $1,200, according to K.M.
Philip of Mesquite, who’s from Kerala and since 1999 has helped educate the
group about his homeland.
“I wish more people would get involved in the volunteer work,” he
says. “They are depending only on volunteers to do this.”
A world without Bibles is nearly impossible for many people to imagine, says
LBWA Executive Director Loyd Coppenger. “Many who are blind or visually
impaired do not have access to a Bible of their own. This deprives them of the
opportunity to read the Bible that most take for granted. [What we do] is
possible due to our volunteer work force and gifts from loving donors. As a
result, thousands each year hear and read, for the first time, the message of
Salvation in Jesus Christ.”
Religion, Social Services and Constitutional Rights
A challenge for our time
By Valerie J. Monson, Esq.
The “charitable choice” section of the Community Solutions Act
passed by the U.S. House of Representatives has sparked renewed controversy. The
heated public debate centers on whether increased public funding of faith-based
social services can or should occur, in light of current anti-discrimination law
and the First Amendment’s religious freedom safeguards.
The less public, but no less important, debate centers on whether
restrictions on the autonomy of faith-based providers will eviscerate the
“faith factor” that makes faith-based delivery of social services
especially effective. It is in our interest as individuals and as a society to
understand the issues involved and reach a consensus. Only then can we identify
the best and most cost-effective ways to help the needy while protecting
constitutional and civil rights.
For many years, religiously affiliated nonprofits such as Catholic Charities,
the Jewish Federation and Lutheran Social Services have received federal funding
for social service programs. These and similar organizations, however, are set
up as secular nonprofits and must restrict the religious content of their
The charitable choice provision of the 1996 federal welfare reform law allows
religious organizations to compete for government social service funding without
setting up separate entities. Congress has since passed other legislation that
includes charitable choice provisions, including the Welfare-to-Work program
(1997), the Community Services Block Grant program under the Health and Human
Services Reauthorization Act (1998), and drug treatment programs under the
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2000). Charitable
choice provisions in these federal statutes bind states that accept federal
welfare block grants.
The nitty-gritty legal issues raised by public funding of faith-based
services are important and complex. Finding solutions acceptable to all is hard
work, yet the effort is crucial to our society. The issues include:
- Application of federal, state and local anti-discrimination laws to the
hiring practices of faith-based social service providers. Religious
organizations are exempt from the Federal Civil Rights Act’s prohibition of
religious discrimination in employment practices. The House bill provides
that a religious organization will not lose that exemption by accepting
federal funds for social service programs. The bill also ensures that a
religious organization receiving such funds will remain autonomous from
federal, state and local governments, retaining control over the
“definition, development, practice and expression of its religious
- Hiring practices have become the focus of the current debate. The
exemption of religious organizations from federal (and many state) religious
discrimination prohibitions enables religious organizations to hire on the
basis of religious beliefs and practices.
- Critics of the House bill have expressed concern about the impact of the
bill’s exemption and autonomy provisions on expanded hiring by faith-based
providers. They argue that allowing hiring decisions to be based on
religious factors in federally funded programs is a giant step backward for
civil rights in this country. Supporters of the bill cite the historic
recognition of the right of religious organizations to make
religiously-based hiring decisions, arguing that states and municipalities,
as well as the federal government, should respect that right.
Application of federal anti-discrimination laws to delivery of social
services by faith-based organizations. The House bill forbids discrimination
against the beneficiaries of faith-based social service providers. The bill
provides that federal anti-discrimination laws apply to the delivery of services
by religious organizations. For example, a faith-based rehabilitation program
could not refuse to offer drug counseling to people of a particular race or
Sectarian worship, instruction or proselytizing in federally funded social
service programs. The House bill explicitly prohibits sectarian worship,
instruction or proselytizing in programs that receive direct federal funding.
Those activities may be permissible, however, in voucher programs that provide
funds directly to the consumer, rather than the provider, of social services.
The definition of “religion” in determining qualification for
funding. The House bill contains no such definition. This is consistent with
the fact that the legislation is designed to remove existing barriers to the
funding of faith-based organizations, not to establish a separate pool of funds
available only to faith-based providers. Any provider may seek funding;
religious or secular labels are irrelevant.
The requirement of an alternative provider for those who object to a
particular provider on religious grounds. The House bill requires that an
alternative provider of social services of equal value be made available to any
person entitled to receive services who objects to the religious character of a
particular service provider, and that the alternative be unobjectionable to the
individual on religious grounds.
The display of religious art, icons, scripture, or symbols, or use of a
name of religious character. The House bill provides that a religious
organization will not be required to remove religious items from public display
or to change its name in order to be eligible to provide assistance under a
The controversy over these civil rights and First Amendment issues will
continue to play out in Congress and in the courts. At the same time, leaders of
both political parties are exploring another way of solving the problem.
President Bush recently established a bipartisan group headed by a former
Democratic Senator from Pennsylvania, Harris Wofford, to examine these issues,
identify common ground, and seek solutions.
Helping the needy, protecting individuals from discrimination and respecting
the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom are core American values.
We know that there is tension among those values. We can and should strive for
an intelligent, reasoned solution that respects and strengthens those core
values. We can and should care enough to bring our collective resources to bear
on the issue. This is a challenge for our time. Let us rise to that
Valerie J. Munson chairs the Religious Organizations Practice at Eckert
Seamans Cherin & Mellott, LLC and specializes in First Amendment religious
freedom issues. Contact Munson at (215) 851-8434.