Religious liberty experts stand together, on cases inside prison walls

Religious liberty experts stand together, on cases inside prison walls

When it comes to fine cuisine, few gourmands would fight to be served peanut butter, sardines, beans and some other canned goods -- often cold.

While these foods are not very appealing, they are kosher. Thus, they are common items on the menu the Florida Department of Corrections has offered prisoners requesting kosher meals.

First Amendment activists have repeatedly clashed in federal courts with Florida officials who insist a kosher-food option would be too expensive.

"These aren't prisoners who have made up some kind of religion that requires them to eat lobster every day, claiming they're members of the Church of the Lobster," noted attorney Daniel Blomberg of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket team filed an amicus brief backing the prisoners' rights, citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

"No one goes to a lot of trouble to eat bread and beans," he added. "The prisoners are making these requests because this is what they believe God wants them to do. … The 'religious' diet these prisoners are being served is, frankly, unpalatable."

Federal and Florida officials have been haggling over these dietary details since 2011, leading to six federal-court decisions backing the prisoners. The state says a kosher-foods program costs about $12.3 million a year, compared to a U.S. government estimate of roughly $384,000.

Rites & prayers before the storm

Anyone who has lived in a hurricane zone knows the rites that fill the hours before a storm.

You wrestle with metal shutters. You fill bathtubs and rows of plastic bottles with water and make extra ice. You check radios, flashlights and battery expiration dates.

Floridians in Frances evacuation zones faced the sobering act of preparing a box or two of irreplaceable papers, pictures and memories. I saved stacks of class outlines and left textbooks. I saved icons from Greece and left diplomas from Texas. I saved my guitar and an oil painting of the great lion Aslan from the Chronicles of Narnia. Some things are easier to replace than others.

Then you are supposed to pray.

Even our civic officials and television anchors hinted at this. But for what, precisely, should we pray? This is a puzzle for learned theologians, as well as parents guiding children in bedtime prayers next to a hurricane lamp.

Should believers pull a Pat Robertson and try to steer the storm toward some other target more worthy of God's wrath? Is it realistic to pray that every storm will veer into the open Atlantic? Many simply pray for God's will to be done -- period.

Deep questions loom overhead: Does God "cause," "control" or merely "allow" hurricanes? Are they part of a fallen creation touched by sin, yet events that God can use? All of the above?

"I don't think you can hold that God never sends the storm -- the witness of scripture seems to forbid that," said Father Joseph Wilson of St. Luke's Catholic Church in Whitestone, N.Y., one of several experts I reached by email during the storm.

"The Fall had consequences and scripture hints at them. These consequences affected man's relationship with God, his relationship with woman and with nature. ... In classical Christian theology it is not necessarily the active will of God, which sends the storm, although it may be. But the permissive will of God is involved, since He is permitting it."

Roman Catholics have long wrestled with these issues in liturgies, he said. The altar missal includes a rich variety of "Masses for Various Needs," including prayers about the weather and harvests. The "Procession for Averting Tempest" begins with church bells, a litany of the saints and the following:

"Almighty and ever living God, spare us in our anxiety and take pity on us in our abasement, so that after the lightning in the skies and the force of the storm have calmed, even the very threat of tempest may be an occasion for us to offer You praise. Lord Jesus, Who uttered a word of command to the raging tempest of wind and sea and there came a great calm: hear the prayers of Your family."

Finally, the priest makes the sign of the cross and sprinkles the surroundings with holy water. At that point, quipped Wilson, "I guess everyone assumes the crash position."

Specific Protestant rites are harder to come by. But in one Evangelical Lutheran Church in America liturgy, the people pray "Lord, have mercy" after prayers such as: "In the face of mighty winds, thunderous sounds, strong rains, and surging waves, let us pray. ... In the face of complete uncertainty, as well as concern for our loved ones, here or elsewhere, let us pray. ... In the face of our own vulnerable mortality, let us pray to the Lord."

Eastern Orthodox tradition includes similar prayers, noted Father Patrick Henry Reardon of Chicago, the author of numerous meditations on the Book of Psalms. Hurricane Frances drew his immediate attention because his son's family, with five grandchildren, was in its path.

The key is that it is always appropriate to "pray simply for deliverance, for yourself and for others," he said. "During storms ... I am particularly drawn toward Psalms 18 and 29, because both of them describe the experience of a storm, with all the wind, thunder (the 'Voice of the Lord'), lightning and so forth."

These timeless and mysterious prayers range from stark fear to exuberant praise. In them, storms are common -- a normal challenge of life in biblical lands.

"It is legitimate to ask if a hurricane counts as a storm," said Reardon. "I don't know. However, I am disposed to think they will suffice."

O Christmas Palm, O Christmas Palm

The tree filled up so much of the station wagon that driving home was an adventure.

But it was worth the extra effort. Things are more complex if you want a living tree, the kind you can transfer -- roots and all -- to the yard or a pot on the patio when its ritual duties are done. We are seriously considering moving this tree back indoors to decorate next Christmas.

This is Palm Beach County, after all. People do all kinds of strange things with palm trees.

"The Christmas Palm is a nice tree and it's really pretty," said the helpful Home Depot salesman. "And about this time of year, it will get red berries on it. Maybe that's why people called it the Christmas Palm. But I don't think I've heard of anyone trying to use one of these as a Christmas tree."

Why not? This is the tropics, I noted. Why not decorate a Christmas Palm here?

"I don't know how it used to be," he said. "But most people these days just want a normal Christmas tree. You know?"

We both looked at the parking lot, with its familiar holiday tent packed with dying evergreens trucked down from somewhere up north.

When I moved to South Florida, friends warned that the first Christmas would be surreal.

This is true. It feels strange the first time you hear "White Christmas" or "Jingle Bells" blasting out of the radio of a nearby convertible -- with the top down, since it's 80 degrees -- idling at a traffic light.

The shopping malls, with the help of acres of various forms of white plastic, look like icy chunks of Denver or Minneapolis that have broken free and floated south. Entire neighborhoods are wrapped in icicle twinkle lights. And if you glance into the giant front window of the archetypal South Florida home you will see the familiar glowing shape of a "normal" Christmas tree.

My theory is that what is surreal about Christmas here is that most people are trying to act like they aren't in South Florida. South Floridians are trying to celebrate somebody else's Christmas and it feels bizarre, with good reason. The "normal" Christmas just doesn't feel right.

So I have been trying to find out what Christmas was like in the tropics before the arrival of air conditioning, national television networks, roads jammed with slow-driving northerners and rows of superstores that look the same in every zip code on the planet.

I have found hints of older traditions in the parades of sailboats, shining with strings of lights. A few people still know how to make stunning wreaths out of palm fronds and seashells. There are Cuban Christmas dishes -- some topped with red and green peppers and multi-colored tortillas -- that don't look like they would play in Peoria.

Millions of people do celebrate Christmas in the tropics and, below the equator, in the middle of what is their summer. Christmas rites can be celebrated with a wide variety of traditions. Wouldn't it be depressing if the whole world tried to import our "normal" Christmas, complete with cartoon angels, sanitized mall-music carols, dumb advertisements, office-party rituals, non-sectarian symbols and the soothing sounds of car horns and cell telephones?

I wonder. Would we know a traditional Christmas if we saw one? What was Christmas like before the advent of this "normal" Christmas?

Meanwhile, my family has discovered that the fronds on a Christmas Palm are shaped just right for hanging ornaments and a few strings of lights. This tree will look just fine, matched with a Nativity scene.

In fact, listen to these words and flash back 2000 years: "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shown round about them. ..."

Stop for a minute and visualize the scene in your mind. Remember that this is Bethlehem, not far from the sea, on a sandy camel path out into the desert.

Yes, it's Christmas. See the palm trees in the background?