In brief

Priest urges confession for Obama voters

MODESTO, Calif. — A Roman Catholic priest urged his parishioners to confess if they voted for Barack Obama with knowledge of the president-elect's support for abortion rights, drawing a dissenting view from his bishop and further stirring a debate about Catholic political responsibility.

"If you are one of the 54 percent of Catholics who voted for a pro-abortion candidate, you were clear on his position and you knew the gravity of the question, I urge you to go to confession before receiving communion. Don't risk losing your state of grace by receiving sacrilegiously," the Rev. Joseph Illo wrote in a Nov. 21 letter to 15,000 parishioners at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Modesto.

He delivered a similar message during a Mass. Illo said in an interview he sent the letter because Catholic teaching requires that people go to confession when they commit a mortal sin.

The Most Rev. Stephen Blaire, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Stockton, where the parish is situated, disagreed. He said Catholics did not need to confess if they voted for Obama after considering many issues. Confession would be necessary only if someone voted for a candidate specifically because of his or her support of abortion, Blaire said.

Illo clarified his position from the pulpit Sunday. He said if parishioners intentionally had supported any candidate who backs abortion rights — not just Obama — that stance "may" need confessing, the Modesto Bee reported.

Last month, a Catholic priest in South Carolina drew attention for telling parishioners they should refrain from receiving Communion if they voted for Obama because of his pro-abortion rights position.

During the 2008 campaign, many bishops told Catholic politicians and voters that abortion should be the most important voting consideration.

Atheist placard joins Capitol display

OLYMPIA, Wash. — An atheist group has unveiled an anti-religion placard in the state Capitol, joining a Christian Nativity scene and "holiday tree" on display during December.

The atheists' sign was installed Monday by Washington members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national group based in Madison, Wis.

With a nod to the winter solstice in late December, the placard reads, in part, "There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

The foundation's co-president, Dan Barker, said it was important for atheists to offer their viewpoint alongside the overtly religious Nativity scene and Christmas-style holiday tree.

"Our members want equal time," Barker said. "Not to muscle, not to coerce, but just to have a place at the table."

The three displays, all privately sponsored, were granted permits from state groundskeepers to be placed in the Capitol's grand marble hallways.

The 25-foot noble spruce, called the "Capitol Holiday Kids Tree," is sponsored by the Association of Washington Business and tied to a charity drive for needy families. It's been a Capitol fixture for nearly 20 years. The Nativity scene was installed more recently, and a menorah has been displayed in the past.

Church turns to courts for project

DENVER — An evangelical church in Boulder County is asking a federal judge to order county commissioners not to interfere with its planned expansion.

Rocky Mountain Christian Church's injunction request comes after church officials took the Boulder County commissioners to trial. The motion also asks that commissioners approve the church's proposed expansion within 30 days.

Jurors found that commissioners violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act by denying the church's application for a $30 million project that would double its size near Niwot, about five miles northeast of Boulder.

The jury's verdict still leaves it up to U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn to decide whether the church's proposed expansion can proceed. No date is set for the judge's ruling.

The church claimed commissioners violated the law because the denial of the permit placed a burden on their right to practice religion.

Commissioners denied the expansion permit in 2006, saying it would be an over-intensive use of the property and was not in harmony with surrounding areas. They also said the expansion would encroach into a decades-old agricultural buffer zone meant to separate urban and rural areas.

Attorneys for the church said those reasons did not meet the criteria for compelling government interests set by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Muslim convert turns to politics in Italy

ROME — An Egyptian-born writer who renounced Islam and was baptized a Roman Catholic by Pope Benedict XVI said he has formed a political party that would enter candidates in next year's European Union elections.

Magdi Cristiano Allam said his "Protagonists for Christian Europe" party would work to defend Europe's Christian values, which he sees threatened by secularism and moral relativism. He said his new party would be open to people of all faiths and would be close to the conservative European People's Party.

Allam built his career in Italy as commentator and book author attacking Islamic extremism and supporting Israel.

In March, Allam angered some in the Muslim world with a high-profile conversion during an Easter vigil service led by the pope in St. Peter's Basilica.

Allam, who took the name Cristiano upon converting, has credited Benedict with being instrumental in his decision to become a Catholic and has said the pope had baptized him to support freedom of religion.

The 56-year-old Allam has lived most of his adult life in Italy, becoming a citizen in 1986. In recent years he was given a police escort after receiving death threats from radical Islamic groups.

Fees awarded in Commandments case

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A federal judge has awarded attorneys' fees to the plaintiffs in a lawsuit over a Ten Commandments display at a county courthouse.

U.S. District Judge Joseph H. McKinley awarded the more than $44,000 in attorney fees to the plaintiffs — Raymond Harper, Ed Meredith and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky — who won an injunction against displaying the commandments in the county courthouse. They were represented by ACLU attorneys David Friedman and William E. Sharp.

"Because there are no special circumstances which would render an award of attorneys fees unjust, the plaintiffs are entitled to an award of attorney fees...," McKinley wrote.

Friedman and Sharp represented Harper and Meredith, who sued in 2001 claiming the intent of displaying the commandments in a public building was religious and violated the Constitution. In March, McKinley granted a permanent injunction barring the display of the Ten Commandments as part of a "Foundations of American Law and Government" display.

No public money was used to set up the display in the county courthouse in Leitchfield, about 75 miles southwest of Louisville.

— The Associated Press