Category Archives: Gender & Sexuality

First person: Breaking the chains of religious tradition

c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

(RNS) Where I come from, girls are married off as teenagers to men they barely know and are expected to spend their lives caring for their husband and children. They are required to cover their hair and nearly every inch of their skin, and to remain behind a curtain at parties and religious events.

Where I come from, if a woman wants to feel her hair blow in the wind or wear jeans or attend college, the courts have the authority to take her children away from her.

Where I come from, you might be surprised to learn, is the United States. Specifically, New York and then New Jersey, in the Orthodox Jewish community.

Recently, two women have brought national attention to the fact that Orthodox Jewish women who leave that insular community risk losing custody of their children: Deborah Feldman of New York, whose memoir about her escape from the Satmar Hasidic sect hit The New York Times best-seller list; and Perry Reich of New Jersey, whose custody battle — which includes accusations from her husband that she sometimes wears pants — earned her an appearance last month on the “Dr. Phil” television show.

My story is similar to theirs. When I was 19, my family arranged for me to marry a man who turned out to be violent. With no education and no job, and a family that refused to help me, I was stuck. By age 20, I was a trapped, abused, stay-at-home mother.

Ten years later, still trapped and unhappy, I finally took what became one of my first steps away from Orthodox Judaism: I stopped wearing a head covering.

The consequences were swift and severe. My family cut off contact with me; one of my five siblings kept in touch long enough to inform me the others were contemplating sitting shiva for me, or mourning as if I had died.

Perhaps most shockingly, several rabbis informed me I should say goodbye to my children because I was going to lose custody of them during my looming divorce proceeding.

They were not bluffing. Numerous family attorneys unaffiliated with any religion advised me to stop publicly flouting Orthodox laws and customs.

As the attorneys noted, and as illustrated by Feldman’s and Reich’s experiences, judges look at religion as one factor in a custody dispute and generally view stability to be in the children’s best interests.

They have been known to award custody to the parent who will continue to raise the children in the same religion as before the family breakup.

Where I come from — that means here in the United States, in 2012 — women fear, legitimately, that they might lose their children if they lose their religion.

Feldman and I each managed to settle and avoid divorce trials, and each of us retained custody of our children. Others have not been as lucky. Reich, for example, remains mired in her custody battle.

Fear in the religious community, therefore, persists. I recently started a nonprofit organization, Unchained At Last, to help women leave arranged marriages, and the most common inquiry I receive is from Orthodox Jewish women who want to leave the religion and are willing to accept ostracism from their family and friends, but are terrified that a judge might remove their children.

For many, their situation seems especially hopeless because they, like Reich, felt pressured to allow a beit din (an Orthodox Jewish court) arbitrate their divorce.

The beit din’s binding decisions and agreements routinely include a provision that the children will be raised within Orthodox Judaism.

Secular courts generally enforce those decisions and agreements, even if a mother later realizes she does not want to raise her children in a religion where men bless God every morning for not making them a non-Jew, a slave or a woman.

Where I come from — the United States — the First Amendment is supposed to empower people to choose whether and how to practice religion, without interference from secular courts. What went wrong?

(Fraidy Reiss is the founder/executive director of Unchained At Last. She lives in Westfield, N.J. A version of this commentary first appeared in The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.)

Newspaper series focuses on clergy’s role on both sides of Amendment One debate

David Scott

By Blogger David Scott
Politics + Religion

The Durham Herald-Sun is running a three-part series on how clergy are involved in the Amendment One debate.

Starting on Sunday (April 22) and continuing Monday (April 23) and Tuesday (April 24), the Durham Herald-Sun newspaper is running a series about how clergy are involved on both sides of the debate about Amendment One, North Carolina’s proposed change to the constitution for marriage between one man and one woman.

I recommend these articles to our readers.

WilmingtonFAVS: 910-520-3958

Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a (Hindu) match

A Hindu wedding ceremony. RNS photo courtesy Flickr

c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

LOS ANGELES (RNS) Kamna Mittal and her husband moved to the Bay Area soon after they were married in India in 2000. In addition to being in a new country, the couple were new to each other. Their marriage had been arranged.

“When you go for an arranged marriage,” she said, “it’s a total gamble.”

Now a mother of two, Mittal counts herself lucky that it worked out, but 12 years later, she wants to help Indian-American singles in the Bay Area meet directly.

Turns out even love can use a little help every now and then, and the age-old practice of arranged Hindu marriages is getting a 21st-century makeover.

Sapna Thakur, 34, recently moved to the Bay Area and attended Mittal’s first mixer in February, a Valentine’s Day-themed singles party. “Why not? Give it a shot,” she thought before going.

“It was a bit awkward in the beginning but then it was fine because there were a lot of games and people were mingling. I had a nice time.”

The marriage process is in flux in Indian-American culture, opening the door to new avenues for matchmaking. Even as singles’ attitudes on dating change, Hindu tradition still holds sway through mixers, matrimony websites and matchmakers.

Within Indian culture (which is predominantly Hindu), marriage is as much about families coming together as it is about couples coming together. Hinduism orders families into four major castes and thousands of sub-castes, each with their own particular ritual role or profession. Ideally, a couple must be in the same sub-caste, region and religion. Priests also compare their horoscopes to ensure compatibility.

Especially in Indian villages, matchmaking tends to be informal, using “extensive kinship networks,” said Lindsey Harlan, chair of religious studies at Connecticut College. When an Indian gets to a marriageable age, “aunties,” who are not necessarily related, start looking out for potential life partners.

A family also might hire a marriage broker to help the process along. These days, matrimony websites can serve the same broker role as the “aunties.”

Parents, both in India and in the U.S., create profiles listing their children’s personal and familial information — including caste and religion — on sites like, which has more than 20 million profiles worldwide.

The website’s CEO, Murugavel Janakiraman, said 10 percent of clients are immigrants to the U.S. or American-born Indians.

“There have been a lot of more modern inventions trying to achieve the same goal as matchmaking by ‘aunties,'” Harlan said. Such inventions, she said, are “a reaction to the fear that kids will make inappropriate choices and suffer the same divorce rates that the (U.S.) does in general.”

Parties like Mittal’s can serve to either continue or break tradition: Singles might click with somebody outside their caste, or they could meet more of “the kind of people that your parents would like you to marry” than they might in everyday life, Harlan said.

Thakur’s parents encouraged her to go the singles party, even though they had wanted to arrange a marriage for her when she was younger. Now that she’s older, her father is more open-minded about who his daughter marries — “but it has to be an Indian,” she added, and preferably from one of the higher castes.

Thakur herself is also more open to arranged marriage than she was when she was young.

“When you’re working, it’s really difficult to meet people,” Thakur said. “You go there, you meet someone. You can meet them a few times. It’s basically semi-arranged.”

Thakur’s desire to marry reflects Indians’ traditional values at a time when only 51 percent of American adults are wed, according to 2010 Census data.

“It’s not like a flirty or just everyday kind of party,” Mittal said. “From the girls’ side or boys’ side, they are both serious about finding a life partner.”

Indian immigrants tend to look for the same religion, caste and region, Mittal said. American-born Indians might want somebody who is Indian, preferably raised in America, too. Ninety percent of Hindus in America marry within the faith, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

“I’ve seen so much that blows those stereotypes out of the water,” said Jasbina Ahluwalia, a Bay Area matchmaker who serves the South Asian community. Still, culture can add a burden to dating.

“Separating one’s own priorities and values from expectations of others — family, parents — I think can be very challenging,” she said.

Even if parents approach her, as they sometimes do, the first consultation must be with the single person, in private. “If someone says,’I want to find another Indian,’ I ask why,” she said.

Ahluwalia doesn’t necessarily advocate a wholesale break with tradition, but clients need to have thought through their answers. If a woman says she wants to marry a Hindu, for instance, Ahluwalia asks what that means: Going to temple each week? Simply being spiritual?

Thakur is willing to look within the parameters set by her parents, but she has her own priorities: physical attraction, education, good employment and stability. She didn’t meet anybody she liked at Mittal’s party.

“I guess you become more fussy when you get older,” she said.

Bride and groom hold hands during a Hindu wedding ceremony. RNS photo courtesy Flickr

Vatican orders crackdown on American nuns

c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

WASHINGTON (RNS) The Vatican has launched a crackdown on the umbrella group that represents most of America’s 55,000 Catholic nuns, saying that the group was not speaking out strongly enough against gay marriage, abortion and women’s ordination.

Rome also chided the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)

for sponsoring conferences that featured “a prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

The Vatican’s disciplinary action against the LCWR was announced on

Pope Benedict XVI during general audition

Pope Benedict XVI during general audition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wednesday (April 18), one day before Pope Benedict XVI marked seven years as pontiff.

In many ways, the Vatican’s actions against the LCWR encapsulated the kind of hard line that many expected Benedict — the Vatican’s former doctrinal czar — to take when he was elected in 2005.

“The current doctrinal and pastoral situation of the LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern, also given the influence the LCWR exercises on religious congregations in other parts of the world,” said the eight-page statement issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Benedict led for a quarter century before his election.

The directive, which follows a two-year investigation by Rome, also comes as the Vatican appeared ready to welcome a controversial right-wing splinter group of Catholic traditionalists back into the fold, possibly by giving the group a special status so that they can continue to espouse their old-line rites and beliefs.

The CDF, now led by American Cardinal William Levada, appointed Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain to lead the process of overhauling LCWR’s governance and reviewing its plans and programs and its relationship with certain groups that the Vatican finds suspect.

One of the groups singled out in the criticism is Network, a social justice lobby created by Catholic sisters 40 years ago that continues to play a leading role in pushing progressive causes on Capitol Hill.

The Vatican announcement said that “while there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death.”

It added that “crucial” issues like “the church’s biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes church teaching. Moreover, occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose.”

Many bishops were angered when LCWR and Network, along with the Catholic Health Association, endorsed President Obama’s health care reform over the bishops’ objections. LCWR and Network recently endorsed Obama’s compromise with the bishop over a mandate to provide insurance coverage for birth control for employees at religious institutions, even as the bishops continue to fight it.

The Vatican said the LCWR defended itself in part by arguing that the group “does not knowingly invite speakers who take a stand against a teaching of the church church ‘when it has been declared as authoritative teaching.'” The LCWR also said that assertions made by speakers at LCWR conferences are not necessarily their own. The Vatican called that response “inadequate” and unsupported by the facts.

While LCWR did not respond to repeated requests for comment, Sister Simone Campbell, Network’s executive director, said she was “stunned” that the Vatican document would single out her group, probably over its support for health care reform.

“It concerns me that political differences in a democratic country would result in such a a censure and investigation,” Campbell said.

Campbell also strongly defended LCWR. “I know LCWR has faithfully-served women religious in the United States and worked hard to support the life of women religious and our service to the people of God.”

Throughout church history, and in particular in the United States, women in religious communities who take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience have directed their work toward charitable and educational ministries — running schools, hospitals, orphanages and a range of social services that have become as much a hallmark of Catholicism as the moral doctrine that the bishops oversee.

Increasingly, however, the hierarchy in Rome and the U.S. is focusing on promoting doctrinal orthodoxy and curbing dissent.

Many women religious (as both sisters in active ministry and cloistered nuns are known) have viewed their ministry as primarily one of service, but some have openly disagreed with church leaders on a number of hot-button issues.

In 2009 the Vatican launched a wide-ranging investigation of all women religious in the U.S., prompted by concern over their commitment to doctrine and tradition as well as the sharp decline in vocations. The number of nuns in America has dropped from 179,954 in 1965 to just 55,000 today.

Some newer, more traditional communities are growing, though they still represent a small minority of the total number of sisters. They are represented by a parallel organization that is considered more Vatican-friendly than the LCWR.

That broader investigation, called a visitation, was seen by critics as a heavy-handed maneuver and prompted widespread resistance among U.S. nuns, which led the Vatican to recalibrate its approach. The final report on that investigation was delivered to the pope in January, and the results are expected to be announced in the coming months.

The LCWR investigation was a separate probe that was begun in 2008 and concluded in 2010. Benedict gave the CDF the go-ahead to take action against the LCWR in January 2011, more than a year ago. There was no explanation for the delay in publicly revealing the crackdown.

North Carolina ACLU and Equality NC launch video project against Amendment One


The North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union and Equality NC Foundation launched the KNOW + LOVE Project today (April 18), online video stories about families with lesbian or gay members.

The groups plan to release new videos in the weeks leading up to the May 8 vote on Amendment One, the state’s proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

One of the site’s first videos includes Christian and Jewish faith leaders talking about Amendment One and its impact on gay and lesbians in the state.

“North Carolina is part of what is supposed to be the New South,” said  Ricky Woods, pastor of First Baptist Church- West, Charlotte. “I think it’s important that we continue to hold the line in terms of what we believe is important, and one of the things we think is important is that no segment of our state should be discriminated against.”

Pastors from across the state told stories about gay or lesbian couples in their congregations who were not allowed input on end of life decisions or child care issues because they were not legally married.

Amanda Greene: 910-520-3958 or on Twitter @WilmFAVS

Duke Energy CEO stands against marriage amendment while N.C. bishops re-state their position for it


In front of hundreds at a Charlotte country club on April 13, Duke Energy’s CEO made a personal statement against a proposed amendment to the N.C. constitution that would define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Such unions are already illegal in the state, and the issue will be put to a vote on May 8.

Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers compared the amendment to the Jim Crow laws in the South and said the law would be viewed in a negative light within the next decade.

Rogers is one of several high ranking North Carolina business and community officials to publicly denounce Amendment One including Charlotte mayor Anthony Foxx.

On the opposite side of the debate, bishops of the Diocese of Raleigh and the Diocese of Charlotte recently issued statements re-affirming their position for the amendment.

“The public debate on the marriage amendment in our state is generating a substantial amount of misinformation on what the amendment truly means and is intended to do,” said Bishop Peter Jugis of Charlotte and Bishop Michael Burbidge of Raleigh. “Contrary to the claims of those opposed, the marriage amendment: Does not prohibit businesses from providing benefits to same-sex couples. Does not change the law on domestic violence programs. Does not impact existing child custody laws or arrangements. Does not invalidate trusts, wills and end-of-life directives in which an unmarried partner is a beneficiary and/or is entrusted with the care of a loved one. Does not negatively impact employment opportunities in our state. Does not relegate same-sex couples to second-class citizen status. Does not prohibit same-sex couples from any rights or benefits that may be granted by local governments or the UNC System, if they choose to do so by changing the basis upon which benefits are offered.

While the amendment does not allow civil unions or domestic partnerships to be legally binding entities, it does allow same-sex couples and others to enter into, and enforce, private legal agreements.”

COMMENTARY: Environmental myopia and fear and loathing in the bedroom

By Blogger David Scott
Politics + Religion

In reaction to the Religion News Service article “Poll shows Christianity good for the poor, bad for sex,” I want to comment on the quote: “In six of the 16 areas, sizable numbers of Americans said Christianity had little or no impact, including the environment, business ethics, civility and substance abuse. Americans were roughly split, at about one-third each, on Christianity’s impact on racism.”

While I find this statement disturbing, I don’t find it surprising. As a life-long environmental activist, I have observed, with great frustration, how apathetic and slow the institutionalized church is towards creation care.

Though there are some evangelical groups starting to catch onto the importance of creation care, why haven’t churches been quicker to embrace environmentalism as a religious issue?

Many Christians accept the misguided assumption that “if the natural world is destroyed, it is God’s plan, and who are we to disagree?” This myopic view is not only selfish but also dangerous. This explains why so many American Christians are global warming deniers.

In his highly respected book, “The Nature of Prejudice,” Gordon Allport presents the belief that regular churchgoers are made up of two basic categories of members: those who are sincerely concerned about their own spiritual growth and self-improvement and another group who go to church to present a positive image for the public to observe. As it relates to racism or prejudice of any kind, the latter category often displayed prejudice, while the first category was more tolerant. Unfortunately, the “show Christians” are often more public and create the image of the faith as a whole, for me at least.

And finally, the finding that Christianity has a negative impact on sexuality only seems reasonable to me. A faith that is so often based on fear and guilt can’t help but instill these same feelings into the sexual mindsets of its adherents. When fear, self-loathing and guilt enter the bedroom, pleasure and spontaneity flee out the back door. Sex becomes an obligation and not a joy.

Poll shows Christianity good for the poor, bad for sex

c. 2012 Religion News Service
Reprinted with permission

WASHINGTON (RNS)Americans feel the “Christian faith” has a positive

Sex & Religion

Sex & Religion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

impact on help for the poor and raising children with good morals, according to a new poll, but it gets a bad rap on its impact on sexuality in society.

In a new study conducted by Grey Matter Research, more than 1,000 American adults were asked if the Christian faith had a positive, negative, or no real impact on 16 different areas of society, such as crime, poverty and the role of women in society.

Strong majorities (72 percent) said Christianity is good for helping the poor and for raising children with good morals. Around half (52 percent) said Christianity helps keep the U.S. as a “strong nation,” and nearly as many (49 percent) said the faith had a positive impact on the role of women in society.

Although Christianity has been criticized for its traditional views on abortion, contraception and gender roles, “Americans aren’t buying into it,” said Ron Sellers, president of the Arizona-based Grey Matter Research.

Sellers said he wasn’t surprised that Americans hold their most negative perception for how Christianity impacts sexuality: 37 percent felt there was a negative impact, compared to only 26 percent who felt it was positive.

In six of the 16 areas, sizable numbers of Americans said Christianity had little or no impact, including the environment, business ethics, civility and substance abuse. Americans were roughly split, at about one-third each, on Christianity’s impact on racism.

“What’s real concerning to me, from the perspective of a religious leader,” Sellers said, “is when people say, ‘Eh, it hasn’t had a real impact.'”

The total sample of 1,011 adults selected at random from all 50 states had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

BRIEF: UNCW Women’s Resource Center and LGBTQIA office hosts abortion film series

The University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Women’s Resource Center and the LGBTQIA Resource Office are hosting The Stories of Choice at 3:30 p.m. April 16 in the Wrightsville Beach room inside the Fisher Student Union on campus. The event will highlight stories of reproductive choice.

An Abortion Speak-Out will be held at 4 p.m. April 17 in the Port City Room of the Fisher Student Union, including a showing of “The Abortion Diaries.” A discussion of decisions about abortion will be held after the movie “as we work to destigmatize this procedure,” according to a release about the event.

Area anti-abortion groups were not included in the program.

Details: 910-962-2114.

The flier for the UNCW series. Photo via UNCW.

– Amanda Greene

In reversal, board OKs contraceptive funding

Abigael Collins, 6, holds up a during a protest against New Hanover County Commissioners' original vote rejecting a state family planning grant. On Monday night, the commissioners voted on the grant again, this time accepting the funds. Photo by Jeff Janowski/StarNews

By Shannan Bowen
Copyright 2012
Reprinted with permission

Sitting before a standing-room-only audience Monday night, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners narrowly voted to approve the state bonus money for contraceptive supplies – a controversial funding request that the board first turned down last month.

Commissioners Brian Berger and Jason Thompson were opposed to accepting the $8,899 bonus funding, which the health department planned to use to purchase intrauterine devices (IUDs), a long-acting form of birth control inserted directly into a woman’s uterus.

Last month, the five county commissioners voted unanimously to turn down the funds for contraceptive supplies after a couple of commissioners said they didn’t think taxpayers should foot the bill for IUDs that they argued would be used by women who were irresponsible with other family planning methods.

Before Monday’s vote, close to 100 people gathered by the steps of Wilmington’s historic courthouse to protest the commissioner’s earlier stance and urged the officials to reconsider.

Chairman Ted Davis attributed last month’s vote to a lack of information presented about the health department’s budget and the need for IUDs.

“This whole process took approximately six minutes,” he said about last month’s meeting. “I do not apologize for my vote, because I voted based on the information I had at that time.”

Davis then apologized for statements he made at the March meeting, including that the county wouldn’t be in the situation “if these young women were responsible people and didn’t have the sex to begin with.”

But Davis received applause from audience members – a majority attending in support of the funds – when he said Monday night, “I now realize that a woman is being responsible when she seeks contraception from the health department.”

County officials had received a flood of emails and calls about their denial of the funds, and Davis said he wanted to reconsider the funding request with more facts presented by health officials.

In a presentation about the health department, New Hanover County Health Director David Rice said more than 60 women were on a waiting list to receive IUDs for birth control, but the health department does not have any IUD devices in stock because the only staff members experienced in providing the service left the department last year. He added that the health department recently filled that provider’s position and can offer the service again.

But Davis pointed out that the county’s health department, which is funded by federal, state and local funds, already has the ability to purchase IUDs and other forms of birth control from its budget for supplies.

“It’s not about denying women access to contraception, because the health department has been providing this in the past and they have the capability to do it now,” he said.

During a public hearing after the health department’s presentation, five people had time to speak in the 15-minute limit in support of the commissioners accepting the funds. Only one person spoke against the commissioners accepting the funds.

Rebecca Trammel said she thought IUDs would encourage young people to take more sexual risks, and she emphasized that IUDs do not prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

In speaking in favor of the acceptance of the funds, Brandie Stork, a health care provider, urged officials to put politics aside when voting on the issue.

“The previous decision to reject this funding shows the members of this Board of Commissioners are seriously out of touch with the needs of New Hanover County voters,” she said to applause from the crowd.

Despite a turnabout by Commissioners Davis, Jonathan Barfield and Rick Catlin, Thompson said he opposed the motion to accept the funding because health officials did not answer questions he had about the department’s budget and supply stock.

Berger said he was concerned with the notion of using taxpayer money to fund the supplies.

“There is no bonus money,” he said. “It is taxpayer money that is simply being returned to the local community from the state after the state has taken their cut.”

Barfield had changed his mind about his position shortly after the March meeting, saying that a conversation with his wife helped him see his vote was wrong.

The commissioners’ decision last month provoked a local protest and national blogs and media criticized the vote. At the protest held an hour before Monday night’s meeting, politicians, candidates for office and activists chanted and held signs with slogans related to women’s rights.

Planned Parenthood staff members, who helped organize the protest, handed out pink shirts and passed around a petition in support of eliminating insurance co-payments for birth control.

Shawnetta Wilson, a University of North Carolina Wilmington student, gave her own rendition of the popular play The Vagina Monologues by including the county commissioners in the script.

“My vagina? It wants the county to stay out of it,” she said in closing.

Shannan Bowen: 343-2016

On Twitter: @shanbow

Copyright © 2012