Around the world

Preacher blasts IRS inquiry

BROOKLYN PARK, Minn. — The pastor of one of Minnesota's largest churches said an IRS investigation into his ministry's finances is "politically motivated."

The Rev. Mac Hammond is recognizable to a wide audience through Sunday morning TV broadcasts of his services at Living Word Christian Center in Brooklyn Park.Hammond wrote in a letter to congregants that "enemies of the gospel" are behind the inquiry. He preaches the prosperity gospel, which says that God wants his faithful followers to be rewarded spiritually and financially.

In March, the church declined to comply with an IRS summons, arguing that the law states the request must come from a "high-ranking official" of the IRS. The IRS has filed a petition in U.S. District Court to force the church to answer a demand for detailed financial information. A court hearing is set for Oct. 2.

In his letter, Hammond said the agency's actions are part of "a very clear effort, on a national scale, to discredit, defame and intimidate" prosperity gospel preachers.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, is seeking the financial records of six ministries that follow the same theology to see if they comply with IRS rules on nonprofit spending and compensation.

Hammond's church is not one of the six targeted groups. Grassley has insisted that he is not focusing on any church teachings, but on whether the ministries follow tax laws for nonprofits.

Woman named No. 2 for Jewish group

NEW YORK — The Union for Reform Judaism, the largest synagogue movement in North America, has named its first female vice president.

The appointment of Rabbi Stacy Offner, the longtime leader of Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minnesota, was announced last week. The liberal Union for Reform Judaism, led by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, represents more than 900 congregations in the United States and Canada. Offner is the founding rabbi emeritus of Shir Tikvah Congregation, which was established in 1988 in St. Paul and Minneapolis. She taught Jewish ethics at Hamline University in St. Paul and was the first rabbi to serve as chaplain of the Minnesota State Senate. A magna cum laude graduate of Kenyon College, Offner received her master's degree in Hebrew literature in 1982 and her rabbinic ordination in 1984 from Hebrew Union College in New York.

Freedom panel names director

WASHINGTON — James Standish, a former legislative affairs official with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, has been named executive director of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Standish, whose appointment was announced Aug. 20, succeeds Joseph R. Crapa, who died last fall. The commission is an independent, bipartisan federal agency that advises the president and Congress on religious freedom issues worldwide.

Standish worked for seven years as director of legislative affairs at the Seventh-day Adventist Church World Headquarters, representing the denomination on Capitol Hill and on country visits around the world.

Standish received his bachelor's degree from Newbold College in England, his master's degree in business administration from the University of Virginia and his law degree from Georgetown University.

Falun Gong barred from S.F. parade

SAN FRANCISCO — Members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement won't be allowed to participate in San Francisco's Chinese New Year parade and street fair.

The state Supreme Court last week rejected the group's challenge to the parade sponsor's decision to exclude them from the annual festival.

Falun Gong members sued the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in 2006 after the chamber barred them because of the group's ongoing opposition to the Chinese government.

A lawyer for the chamber says all participants with political messages are banned.

— The Associated Press

A lawyer for Falun Gong says they may take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether sponsors of events such as street fairs and parades can deny participation for political reasons. Seminary leader washes student's feet during convocation

FORT WORTH, Texas — The president of one of the nation's largest Southern Baptist seminaries washed the feet of a student during the school's fall convocation.

Paige Patterson, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention, washed the feet of master's of theology student Anthony Moore during the Aug. 21 service at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

In the Bible's Book of John, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples and urges them to do the same for others.

"If you have come to Southwestern with anything other in mind than to learn the ways of servanthood, to learn to be a slave to our Lord and to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, which he bought with his own blood, then you have misunderstood the calling," Patterson said in his convocation message.

Advocates for atheists, agnostics in billboard campaign in Phoenix

PHOENIX — Billboards touting freedom from religion and separation of church and state are going up around the downtown Phoenix area.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., paid advertising company CBS Outdoor to put up five signs around Phoenix that read Imagine No Religion. Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of Freedom From Religion, said the billboards will be in place for a month.

The group of atheists or agnostics promotes free thought and the separation of church and state. They have sponsored similar billboard campaigns in other U.S. cities and so far, Gaylor said, there has been little opposition. She doesn't anticipate any protest in Phoenix.

Religious leaders say they are seeing an increase in atheist activism.

"I don't have a problem with people expressing their points of view in public," said the Rev. Bob Mitchell, senior pastor at Central United Methodist Church of Phoenix.

"I would prefer that there was serious tolerant dialogue that might emerge from this publicity campaign because it is much needed."

State Sen. Linda Gray, a Glendale Republican, said the signs will offend those who believe in God.