Posts by Tara Culp-Ressler

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Tara Culp-Ressler
Tara Culp-Ressler, Faith in Public Life’s Executive and Development Assistant, came to FPL after graduating from American University and interning with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and Interfaith Voices. She blogs about immigration and economic issues.

Tennessee Presbyterian Leader Condemns Mountaintop Removal

March 8, 2012, 3:30 pm | By Tara Culp-Ressler

As we’ve noted before, the faith community has been working for years to put an end to mountaintop removal coal mining, a destructive practice that wreaks havoc on the environment and public health in the Appalachian region.

In Tennessee, activists have pushed for the passage of the Scenic Vistas Protection Act to restrict mountaintop removal in the state. Although the bill passed Tennessee’s Senate Environment Committee, its language was amended to weaken the implementation of the mountaintop removal ban.

The Rev. Gradye Parsons – currently serving as the highest elected official in the Presbyterian Church (USA) – wrote an impassioned editorial in the Tennessean yesterday, advocating for the Scenic Vistas Protection Act in its original form from the perspective of his Christian faith.  As he puts it, opposing mountaintop removal is a matter of deep moral urgency:

“As a son of Tennessee and as a Christian, protecting God’s Creation is not merely environmentalism to me. It is a matter of faith. The book of Genesis teaches us that when God looked out at the created world, God saw that ‘it was very good.’ Furthermore, the psalmist tells us ‘the earth is Lord’s and all that is in it.’ We are called by our faith to care responsibly for the world that our Creator has made, and to do justice for our neighbors. Mountaintop removal, by damaging God’s creation and the well-being of our brothers and sisters, runs contrary to our Christian obligation to each other and to our environment.”

Rev. Parsons points out that the Presbyterian Church (USA) formally condemned mountaintop removal in 2006. At least five other national Christian denominations have also passed resolutions against the practice. It’s encouraging to see the faith community unite on important environmental issues, especially when those issues are articulated in clear moral terms.

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Robert Spencer’s Double-Standard on Religious Freedom

March 5, 2012, 11:42 am | By Tara Culp-Ressler

Anti-Muslim activists often complain that Muslims living in this country don’t effectively assimilate into American culture, that they consider themselves Muslims first and Americans second. Despite the fact that polling has found that Muslim Americans are actually the most loyal religious group in the nation – 93 percent of Muslim Americans say they are loyal to America, and Muslims have the highest confidence in the integrity of the US election process – far-right pundits continue to further the myth that Muslims lack commitment to this country because their faith puts them in conflict with constitutional law.

In fact, the concept of prioritizing faith principles before the law is not unique to Muslims. Prominent Christian figures such as Pat Robertson have publicly remarked that they consider themselves Christians first and Americans second. Perhaps even more telling is the extent to which the current contraception mandate controversy is dominating the political conversation, with some Catholic leaders suggesting they would shut down their hospitals and schools or perform civil disobedience instead of complying with a law they believe conflicts with their faith.

At the recent CPAC conference here in Washington, Nick interviewed prominent anti-Islam activist Robert Spencer and found this exact double standard. Spencer criticizes Muslims for prioritizing Islam over US law, while going on to say he would put his Christian faith first in a situation where Christianity came into conflict with the law:

FPL: A lot of people point to polls that Muslims in various countries suggest that they’re Muslims first and then loyal to that country second – American second, or Spanish second. Do you think that’s a problem and are you worried about that?

Spencer: It’s a big problem, and it’s something that has to be taken into account…when it comes to Islamic law and the constitution, there are many, many ways in which Islamic law contradicts the constitutional freedoms. Then if somebody has a loyalty to Sharia, to Islam first, then that’s very problematic.

FPL: And would you describe yourself as American first, or as a person of faith first?

Spencer: I’m an American and a person of faith. And I believe that my faith, as a Christian, isn’t incompatible with the constitutional freedoms. But Islamic law is manifestly incompatible with constitutional freedoms.

FPL: So would you describe yourself as an American first and a Christian second, or Christian first and American second?

Spencer: Neither one. I think it’s a distinction when it comes to Christianity that thus far, there has not been a problematic issue of allegiance. If it comes down to the new Obama directives with the Catholic Church, for example, forcing it to go back on its own policies and its own doctrine…then obviously those are unjust laws that ought not to be passed.

FPL: So if there was a conflict between your faith and the law, you would choose your faith?

Spencer: Yeah.

The hypocrisy is apparent. If conservatives are concerned with religious liberty, then that liberty ought to be applied to faith traditions across the board, including Islam. At the same conference, conservative paragon Grover Norquist made this same point (around the 2:42 mark):

FPL: So do you think it harms the conservative argument for religious liberty…when [Republican candidates] have previously expressed some similar concerns to extending this [liberty] to Muslim Americans?

Norquist: You can’t be for religious liberty for some people and not others, or the whole thing falls apart. No one in court is going to rule that way. The court will either go with, yes you can ban synagogues, mosques, missionaries and Catholic hospitals– or you can’t do any of that…I’ve noticed that all faith traditions recognize that an attack on one is an attack on all.

As Norquist points out, Spencer’s duplicitous arguments about Islam fall flat. When it comes to religious freedom, the far right cannot have its cake and eat it too.

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Occupy London Evicted from St. Paul’s Cathedral

February 29, 2012, 3:59 pm | By Tara Culp-Ressler

Since the inception of the Occupy movement, we’ve highlighted the diverse ways that people of faith have contributed to the struggle for economic justice and financial reform—as well as some cases where the religious community ought to be doing more to stand in solidarity with Occupy protesters.

In contrast to Trinity Wall Street Episcopal Church’s decision to deny Occupy protesters sanctuary after their eviction from Zucotti Park, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London was a positive example of a religious community working together to support the Occupy movement’s push for a fair and moral economy. Occupy London protesters have been encamped at St. Paul’s Cathedral for the past four months. However, after the City of London Corporation – which owns most of the land around the cathedral – won its suit against Occupy London, the camp was forcibly evicted from St. Paul’s yesterday. As Simon Barrow, the co-director of the Christian think tank Ekklesia, put it:

 “This is a very sad day. The Occupy camp at St Paul’s has been a powerful symbol of the need for concentrations of power to be made accountable, devolved, redistributed and just. Now corporate interests are evicting those who have disturbed their ‘business as usual’…As the eviction takes place, it is to be hoped that the Cathedral recalls its historic Christian duty to be a site of refuge for those fleeing violence and injustice.”

St. Paul’s role in the eviction remains unclear. In a statement released yesterday, cathedral officials noted they “regret the camp had to be removed by bailiffs,” but they remain “fully committed to continuing to promote these issues through our worship, teaching and Institute.” Nonetheless, Occupy London protesters are criticizing the cathedral for failing to take stronger actions to oppose the police action.

As the Occupy movement continues to make critical contributions to the global narrative about social and economic justice, religious communities have a moral obligation to support this prophetic call for a fair economy.

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How an Unscrupulous Birth Control Policy Cost One Woman Her Ovary

February 24, 2012, 9:30 am | By Tara Culp-Ressler

During last week’s House Committee on Oversight and Government hearing on religious freedom, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) posed a question to the witnesses about women who take oral contraceptives for purely medical reasons, such as those who need to mitigate their risk for ovarian cancer or blood clots.

Catholic Bishop William Lori responded that “our Catholic law of theology…recognizes that the same drug can be used for different purposes with different effects and our plans reflect that, so we should be given credit for the nuance and the understanding that we have already brought to the table.”


That stands as an interesting contrast to the testimony of Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University Law School student who was prevented from speaking at last week’s hearing by Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) for supposedly being “unqualified.” Given a subsequent opportunity Wednesday at a special hearing convened by the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, Fluke relayed stories of her female classmates who have struggled to gain access to the health care that their medical conditions demanded under Georgetown’s insurance guidelines.

One of Fluke’s friends needed birth control bills to prevent ovarian cysts; as a self-identified lesbian, she was clearly not interested in the contraceptive purposes of the pill. However, despite a letter from her doctor detailing her medical needs, she was denied coverage under Georgetown’s plan and unable to afford the high cost of birth control pills on her own. As a result of stopping her treatment, she soon developed a massive cyst on her ovary and underwent invasive surgery to remove it – a surgery which may have compromised her ability to conceive later in life.


This isn’t a small point. 58 percent of women who have used birth control pills report that they use the pill for reasons other than contraception, and 14 percent of women use birth control for purely medical reasons. For these women, access to contraception is not a theoretical debate about religion and politics, it’s a matter of critical health care.

Since, as Bishop Lori clearly articulated, the Catholic Church acknowledges there’s no controversy around providing contraceptive pills for medical needs that fall outside of the usual theological proscription, Catholic employers negotiating religious exemptions ought to do a better job ensuring their policies actually match this principle.

The credit Bishop Lori believes the Church deserves for this “nuance and understanding” should be reserved until these insurance plans actually put it into practice.

CORRECTION: This post originally stated that 95% of women who use birth control pills report that they use it for reasons other than contraception. The actual figure is 58%. 95% represents the number of women who have never had sex who do so. We regret the error.

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Occupy Atlanta and Rebuild the Dream Help Save Historic Church from Foreclosure

January 18, 2012, 12:24 pm | By Tara Culp-Ressler

We’ve continued to highlight the creative ways that the Occupy movement has addressed corporate abuses that harm struggling families. This week we saw a huge success in Georgia, where Occupy Atlanta and other grassroots groups took an important stand against predatory banks and helped save a historic black church from foreclosure.

Higher Ground Empowerment Center is one of the oldest churches in Atlanta, located in the same neighborhood where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was raised—so when news that BB&T Bank planned to foreclose on the Center came in the weeks leading up to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the community took immediate action.

Rebuild the Dream, an online organization working for labor rights and economic justice, launched a petition calling on BB&T to reverse their decision to foreclose on the church. The petition collected more than 65,000 signatures and inspired members of Occupy Atlanta, who have used the Center as a meeting place, to lend their voices to the cause. As Rebuild the Dream’s website points out, Occupy Atlanta’s local community action “brought valuable attention to this situation and the bank is showing that they’re paying attention.”

In an amazing victory for Rebuild the Dream and Occupy Atlanta, BB&T agreed to renegotiate the terms of Higher Ground Empowerment Center’s loan, thereby saving the 108-year-old church from impending foreclosure. We’re glad to see local actors working together for the common good, and it’s encouraging to see these positive steps toward an engaged community and a more just economy.

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