CULTURE DIGEST: City bans church from town square; Tebow responds to Esiason criticism

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- Religious liberty is at issue in small-town Holly Springs, Miss., where a Southern Baptist church plant has gone to court to rent a worship space downtown.

The city of Holly Springs made national headlines by passing a zoning ordinance requiring churches to get approval from 60 percent of local property owners and the mayor before locating on the town square. When Opulent Life Church sought a preliminary injunction, the district court ruled for the city, saying the church's religious freedom was not in jeopardy, since it could meet at its current location at the Marshall County Baptist Association.

The church turned to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. Just 24 hours before last week's court date, Holly Springs overturned the original ordinance, enacting a new rule banning churches altogether from the town square.

J. Kizer Jones, Holly Springs' lawyer, maintains the city is trying to "develop retail and foot traffic, commercial businesses" on the square and is concerned that a church would cause traffic congestion at the site.

Telsa DeBerry, Opulent Life's pastor, said the city is trying to make money by preserving the desirable real estate for tax-paying entities.

"When the almighty dollar prevails, evil is part of that," DeBerry told the Associated Press. "They're looking at their tax base. A church doesn't bring in taxes."

DeBerry said the city ordinance violates the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a 2000 law requiring that city zoning laws treat churches the same as other businesses and nonprofits.

With about 20 members, Opulent Life is nearing capacity at its current site and is seeking a space capable of seating 100.

Opulent Life has the support of Liberty Institute, a Texas-based legal group and church advocate representing Opulent Life in court, and the U.S. Justice Department, which filed a brief arguing that Holly Springs is discriminating against the church, since other institutions including museums and social clubs don't have to meet the same location requirements.

Hiram Sasser, Liberty Institute's litigation director, told AP the city's hostility is surprising.

"You think of the town square as the apex of constitutionally protected activity," Sasser said, "and for a church to be excluded simply because it's a church is mind-boggling."

One interesting bit of trivia -- Holly Springs Mayor Andre DeBerry is the pastor's uncle.

TEBOW RESPONDS TO ESIASON'S CRITICISM WITH KINDNESS -- Tim Tebow, now the backup quarterback for the New York Jets, took another hit from former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason and responded in a way consistent with his solid faith.

"If I was the Jets, you want to know what I would do? I would cut Tim Tebow. I really would," Esiason, a CBS NFL analyst and radio host, said Aug. 6 on WFAN's Boomer and Carton Show. "I'm telling you right now I would, and I'll tell you why I would: It's just not in any way, shape or form benefiting this team."

Esiason added that Tebow "has played some of the worst football that any quarterback has ever played in the history of the game."

USA Today noted Esiason was 15-27 as the Jets' starter from 1993 to 1995 and never took the team to the playoffs. Yet Tebow responded with kindness.

"I've heard nothing but great things about Mr. Esiason. I know he was a great player here, and I just wish him nothing but the best in his announcing, and God bless him," Tebow said after practice that day.

Tebow uses criticism as motivation, he said.

"And when I get my opportunities, try to make the most of them, just be the person that I am and not let that get me too excited or too down, but just be who I am and go out there and work as hard as I can every day and try and improve and be the best football player/quarterback I can be," the Heisman Trophy winner said.

Woody Johnson, the Jets' owner, said he was surprised by the enormity of the coverage Tebow attracts and he disagrees with Esiason. "I think Tim is going to be a valuable part of this team moving forward," Johnson said, according to the New York Daily News.

CHRISTIE VETOES SURROGACY BILL -- Both pro-life and pro-choice advocates applauded Gov. Chris Christie's Aug. 8 veto of legislation that would have made New Jersey one of the few states to authorize gestational surrogacy.

Gestational surrogacy involves a woman carrying and giving birth for a couple to a child produced by in vitro fertilization. The child is unrelated to the woman in whose womb he develops and may or may not be related to the couple who has contracted with the surrogate. The child could be conceived by the use of donor egg and sperm before being transferred as an embryo to the surrogate's womb.

The New Jersey Legislature passed a bill that would have regulated the practice, including custody disputes between the surrogate and the contractual parents.

Christie said he was not prepared to approve such surrogacy agreements.

"Permitting adults to contract with others regarding a child in such a manner unquestionably raises serious and significant issues," Christie wrote in his veto message to the Senate. "While some will applaud the freedom to explore these new ... arranged births, others will note the profound change in the traditional beginnings of a family that this bill would enact. I am not satisfied that these questions have been sufficiently studied by the Legislature at this time. Validating contracts for the birth of children is a step that cannot be taken without the most serious inquiry, reflection, and consensus."

Gregory Quinlan of the pro-life New Jersey Family Policy Council praised the veto of what he described as "the 'rent a womb' bill."

"This is not just about creating a family, it's the use of another human being's body -- commercializing someone else's uterus," Quinlan said, according to The Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger.

Quinlan said the legislation did not address what would occur if an unborn child is diagnosed with a disability. "Do the parents have the right to abort?" he asked.

"We are creating an industry to satisfy rich couples' need for a child," Quinlan said, the newspaper reported. "There are other ways to do this. They could adopt."

Kathleen Sloan, a board member of the pro-choice National Organization for Women, commended the veto of a bill she said had "no protections for women who serve as surrogates and no regulation of the fertility industry."

In a written statement, Sloan said, "In order to embrace any form of surrogacy, our culture would have to adopt two radical assumptions as morally acceptable:

"1. That we should go back to a time when women's role in society is viewed as one where they bear children for men and have no right to the custody of the children they bear; and

"2. Mothers provide nothing of particular value."

BRITS' LEGAL ABORTIONS RARELY FOR LIFE OF MOTHER -- Less than one half of 1 percent of the six million legal abortions in Britain has been performed because of threats to the life or health of the mother, a new study shows.

Of the 6.4 million abortions on English and Welsh women from 1968 to 2011, the Parliament-requested report showed:

-- Only 143 (0.006 percent) were done to save the mother's life or to avoid a serious, permanent injury to her physical or mental health.

-- Just 23,778 (0.37 percent) were performed because continuing the pregnancy would result in a greater risk to the mother's life than aborting the baby.

The Christian Institute, a nondenominational charity in Great Britain, reported the findings.

The study came in response to a request by David Alton, an independent, crossbench member of the British Parliament's House of Lords. According to the institute, a post on Alton's blog said:

"When the case for allowing legal abortion was first placed before Parliament it was argued that the law needed to be changed to deal with extremely serious situations.

"More than 6 million abortions later the figures reveal that in 99.5% of cases where an unborn child's life is ended there is no risk to the health of the mother.

"Other figures reveal that 3 teenage girls have had 24 abortions between them and that some women have had more than 8 legal abortions."

MARCH FOR LIFE LEADER GRAY DIES -- Nellie Gray, a founder of the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., has died, LifeSiteNews.com reported Aug. 13.

Gray, 88, served as president of the organization behind the event beginning in 1974 and acted as emcee of the pre-march rally each year.

After the Supreme Court legalized abortion nationwide in its Roe v. Wade ruling on Jan. 22, 1973, Gray and other pro-life leaders became concerned the anniversary of the decision would pass without an appropriate memorial, according to the March for Life website. Organizers planned the 1974 event without intending to continue it. The march became an annual event, however, bringing together tens of thousands of pro-life Americans despite their strategic differences.

"Pro-lifers have spent a considerable amount of time during the past 39 years debating various strategies and approaches," wrote pro-life legislative expert Michael New at National Review Online. "Yet in a movement where nearly every last decision is subjected to rigorous internal debate, the March for Life remains exceptionally popular. Nearly every pro-life group -- whether they be incrementalist, absolutist, religious, or secular -- supports the March for Life and encourages friends and supporters to attend."

Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., the leading pro-life advocate in Congress, said of Gray after her death, "Nellie dedicated the last 38 years of her life to organizing the March for Life and serving as an extraordinary pro-life leader. Even in the worst of weather and poor health, Nellie emceed the March with unstoppable dedication. Due to her leadership, the 1973 fateful Roe v. Wade decision has been marked annually with a somber remembrance that gives voice to the defenseless unborn and the women wounded by abortion."

Next January will mark the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade opinion. The March for Life will be held Jan. 25 rather than Jan. 22, because of a conflict with the Jan. 21 public ceremonies of the presidential inauguration.

SPAIN EXPECTED TO PROHIBIT ABORTIONS -- Spanish lawmakers intend to reverse a liberal abortion law enacted by the previous Socialist government.

The conservative People's Party, which has held the majority in Spain's Parliament since December, plans to introduce a bill in October that would ban abortions, according to Reuters News Service. The Socialist government passed legislation in 2010 that allowed women to have abortions on demand through the first 14 weeks of pregnancy and in cases of severe abnormalities to the unborn child through 22 weeks.

If approved, the measure would fulfill a campaign promise by new Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to rescind the law, Reuters reported.


Compiled by Tom Strode, Erin Roach and Diana Chandler of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).