The Obama administration’s mandate that health insurance plans cover contraceptives that can cause abortions harms not only Baptists and other religious adherents, but all Americans, says a Southern Baptist ethicist told a congressional panel Thursday, reports Baptist Press. Their comments came during a four-and-a-half-hour hearing on the federal rule’s impact on freedom of religion and conscience before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee of the House of Representatives. Ten representatives of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish bodies spoke in opposition to the mandate and what critics describe as its lack of sufficient religious and conscience protections for houses of worship, religious institutions, and individuals. C. Ben Mitchell of Union University told the committee the rule “is an unconscionable intrusion by the state into the consciences of American citizens.” “Contrary to portrayals in some of the popular media, this is not just a Catholic issue,” said Mitchell, Graves professor of moral philosophy at the Baptist school in Jackson, Tenn. “All people of faith—and even those who claim no faith—have a stake in whether or not the government can violate the consciences of its citizenry. Religious liberty and the freedom to obey one’s conscience is also not just a Baptist issue. It’s an American issue enshrined in our founding documents.” Mitchell, along with others, added his voice to the growing public dissent by Southern Baptists against the “contraceptive mandate,” that health plans must cover contraceptives and sterilizations as preventive services for employees.

Other news:

  • A Grand Junction, Colo., high school student is dropping out of choir rather than sing an Islamic song he says goes against his strong Christian beliefs, reports The song, “Zikr,” composed by A. R. Rahman, contains the phrase, “There is no other truth but Allah,” and senior James Harper objects. “This is worshipping another God” and prohibited by the Bible, Harper believes. But School District 51 stands by its decision to perform the song and says this is not the school endorsing or promoting any particular religion or other non-educational agenda. The school says the song, which has been performed by other schools, was chosen because of its rhythms and other qualities.
  • The last piece of land needed to build a full-scale Noah’s Ark on an 800-acre site in Williamstown, Ky., has been purchased by a group of developers led by Answers in Genesis, the Biblical apologetics ministry has announced. Project leaders are hoping to offset costs by building the “Ark Encounter” attraction in multiple phases over many years, and opening the Ark and other supporting elements during phase one. Answers in Genesis, which also oversees the Creation Museum in Petersburg, had previously delayed ground-breaking for the estimated $24.5 million project after funds had reached only $4.4 million. “We have decided to stop trying to predict the U.S. economy so we will announce ground breaking/construction as soon as we are funded,” Mike Zovath, sr. vice president with Answers in Genesis, Special Projects, who is overseeing the Ark Encounter project, told The Christian Post via e-mail. Zovath said that while the complex design and engineering of the Ark is moving forward at a good pace, he would like to see the rate of the donations and private funding increase. “We trust the Lord will continue to touch hearts of donors and private funding. We have seen surprising interest in lifetime memberships and we have already passed the $5 million mark in donations,” he said.
  • A Michigan education official testified that educators, not parents, know what’s best for children’s education, reports The Blaze. A pro–charter school organization then posted a video of the remarks, but a Michigan public affairs channel since objected to its footage “for political purposes” and had the charter school organization take it down.
  • A New Jersey megachurch’s latest effort to better engage with culture by embracing some of pop culture’s most popular songs reignites the debate over whether churches should utilize secular music to be relevant. Dr. John Hardin, a writer for 9Marks, a Washington, D.C. organization that helps “church leaders define success as faithfulness to God,” cautioned in an e-mail to The Christian Post that “the methods and the messages carry with them the DNA of the culture from which they were taken.” By embracing the methods of the world, pastors end up embracing the values and the meanings of the world. Hardin, a former college pastor, said that ultimately they may surrender the sacredness of their church, and “the sacred ceases to be that which is set apart, when it is framed in that which is perhaps all too near.” Brett McCracken, author of Hipster Christianity: When Church & Cool Collide, believes some churches’ initiatives stem from the fact that they feel pressure because young people are leaving in record numbers. Because of that they look for ways to “rebrand the church as more friendly to culture.” However, he cautioned, “when you attract people under these pretenses, and use gimmicky things,” keeping them engaged becomes critical. If a church is selling something to get people in the door, there has to be something substantial in terms of discipleship to keep them. “As Christian, we should focus on quality songs that are well crafted and honest in their lyrics, and theologically rich,” McCracken said. His hope, he told CP, is that Christians “can recover the art of being excellent craftspeople and create music that is so good that Christians don’t have to look to the secular world to get their worship experience.”
  • New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a gay marriage bill Friday, following through on a promise he made when he ran for governor, reports Baptist Press. Meanwhile, Maryland’s House of Delegates was poised to vote on a similar bill Friday afternoon. If it passes, it would then go to the Senate, and the governor, who has vowed to sign it. Opponents have pledged to try to overturn it at the ballot. The New Jersey bill was a top priority of Democratic leaders in the state legislature, and it sailed through the Senate 24–16 Feb. 13 and the Assembly 42–33 three days later with little Republican support. Neither margin is veto-proof. No GOP assembly members supported it, and only two Republican senators did. Christie, a Republican, pledged during his 2010 campaign that he would veto a gay marriage bill. The outcome of that election directly impacted the current bill: the Democratic governor he defeated, Jon Corzine, supported gay marriage. Democrats and supporters immediately said they would work on gaining enough votes to overturn a veto, and they have until January 2014 to do so, The Star-Ledger said. Traditionalists took comfort in the veto but also criticized the legislature. “We believe it to be the highest form of hubris when those in authority tinker with natural law and challenge God in His creation of the natural order. He will not be mocked,” said Len Deo, founder and president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council.
  • One Christian organization is looking to reach what it believes to be a closed country—the public school. With religion being pushed out of schools for nearly five decades, only a minority of teenagers today are said to be Bible-believing Christians. Hoping to change those statistics, The Life Book Movement began targeting Bible-illiterate high school students in schools. “Public schools represent the most strategic mission field in the United States,” Carl Blunt, president and CEO of The Life Book Movement, told The Christian Post. “The vast majority of teenagers pass through their doors.” Seizing the endless opportunities, the organization, an outreach of The Gideons International, works together with local church youth leaders and their students to help get the Word out and “saturate” the schools with God’s message through the distribution of The Life Book. A brief, interactive overview of the Old Testament and the Gospel of John, The Life Book is specifically designed by Blunt to engage high school students with its unique presentation of Scripture alongside honest student comments and real-life questions.
  • National Religious Broadcasters officials are watching in anticipation to see if the Internal Revenue Service will launch an investigation into whether or not watchdog group Media Matters violated its 501(c)(3) status when it accepted money from a special interest group to attack religious conservatives. This past week, The Daily Caller revealed that Media Matters accepted a $50,000 grant from the social equity and justice group The Arca Foundation to “monitor and attack” religious news outlets like the Christian Broadcasting Network and Focus on the Family, reports The Christian Post. “I’m going to be curious to see if someone is going to vet this organization that in fact they haven’t violated their 501(c)(3),” says NRB Executive Board Treasurer Janet Parshall. Once an investigation is conducted, Parshall anticipates that Media Matters will be exposed as a front organization for political progressive groups. “If you start looking into who the donors are, where the funding mechanisms that started coming into Media Matters [came from], you realize that these are not tabula rasa, these are not blank slates, these are people who have [a] particular worldview, a particular agenda legislatively, politically, and they want Media Matters as someone to help shape and mold the debate,” she asserted on Saturday.
  • Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, has come out addressing an extremely detrimental force in society—gambling, reports The Christian Post. Notes Mohler, “The nationwide explosion of legal gambling may well be the most underrated dimension of America’s moral crisis. With the expansion of state lotteries, casino gambling, and new technologies, the gambling industry is poised to grow even further in the next decade. According to some estimates, as much as one-third of the nation’s money supply now moves through the gambling industry each year. . . . The Bible is clear on this issue. The entire enterprise of gambling is opposed to the moral worldview revealed in God’s Word. The basic impulse behind gambling is greed—a basic sin that is the father of many other evils. Greed, covetousness, and avarice are repeatedly addressed by Scripture—always presented as a sin against God, and often accompanied by a graphic warning of the destruction which is greed’s result. . . . The silence and complacency of the Christian church must end. As the late pulpiteer R. G. Lee used to remind us, there will be a ‘payday, someday.’ The Church had better not bet on this problem just going away.”
  • The Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Area School District erred when it confiscated a second-grader’s Valentine’s Day messages because they included a religious passage, according to a lawyer who is representing the child’s mother, reports The Sheboygan Press. David French, an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice, said James Madison Elementary School student Dexter Thielhelm should have been able to distribute valentines that contained candy, a note reading “Jesus Loves You” and the Bible passage John 3:16. French is representing Dexter’s mother, Melissa Wolf. “It’s pretty simple really,” French said. “A student does not shed his constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.” In contrast, Superintendent Joe Sheehan said the valentines aren’t a free speech issue at all. “A student could have that passage, the Bible, whatever they wanted in their own hands,” Sheehan said. “The issue was them distributing them to other people.” In a prepared written statement, Sheehan said the school had to remove the message because other students and their parents hadn’t been given any notice that religious speech was being offered. Sheehan said that although the district doesn’t have a policy specifically relating to the distribution of religious materials in schools, it is working with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards to write one. French, however, said the concern that other second-grade parents didn’t have the opportunity to opt out is beside the point. “The fact that it was religious is irrelevant. It’s not the state speaking, it’s the child speaking” French said. “Opt-outs in education typically happen when you’re talking about state-mandated educational initiatives, such as certain kinds of sex ed (because) messages that come from the state are inherently more coercive.”
  • The Obama administration is extending its decision to stop defending an anti-gay marriage law to provisions affecting same-sex couples in the military, reports The 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act requires the Pentagon to ignore same-sex marriages even if they were legally obtained in a state that allows them. A group of married gay service members and veterans sued in U.S. District Court in Boston last fall, arguing the law is unconstitutional and they are entitled to spousal benefits. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a year ago that President Barack Obama determined DOMA is legally indefensible, reversing a policy of defending the law in litigation. On Friday he wrote to congressional leaders saying the administration reached the same conclusion for lawsuits like the one in Boston involving military personnel.
  • The former chief of staff to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities is “imminent,” reports Naftali Bennett appeared on Fox News’ Huckabee and painted a dire picture of a world with a nuclear Iran, saying Israel will not hesitate to take action if necessary, and that time is of the essence. “We’re at the very last moment. This is going to be the first time in history that a maniacal, radical Islamic regime will acquire a nuclear weapon,” he said. “The day after they have a bomb will be a different day for the entire world.”
  • This year’s Index of Dependence on Government presented startling findings about the sharp increase of Americans who rely on the federal government for housing, food, income, student aid, or other assistance, reports Another eye-popping number was the percentage of Americans who don’t pay income taxes, which now accounts for nearly half of the U.S. population. Meanwhile, most of that population receives generous federal benefits. “One of the most worrying trends in the Index is the coinciding growth in the non-taxpaying public,” wrote Heritage authors Bill Beach and Patrick Tyrrell. “The percentage of people who do not pay federal income taxes, and who are not claimed as dependents by someone who does pay them, jumped from 14.8 percent in 1984 to 49.5 percent in 2009.”
  • The Rhode Island teen who was recently thrust into the national spotlight for fighting to have a prayer banner at her high school removed is now receiving a scholarship from an atheist group, reports.