Bush May Have Sought an Ally

The White House is playing down a report that President Bush appealed to Vatican officials to encourage U.S. bishops to take a more active role in promoting their shared social agenda.

A report in the independent weekly National Catholic Reporter said Bush sought the bishops' help in pushing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages.

Bush reportedly made the request during a meeting with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, secretary of state to the Vatican, on June 4. White House spokesman Scott McClellan confirmed the session took place but refused to elaborate on it.

The president's trip to Rome came as his presumptive Democratic rival -- Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the first Roman Catholic nominee from a major party since John F. Kennedy in 1960 -- has faced questions on his differences with Rome, most notably over abortion.

In a report posted on its Web site last week, the National Catholic Reporter quoted Bush as telling Sodano and other Vatican officials "not all American bishops are with me" on certain social issues and asking for the Vatican's help in encouraging them to be more outspoken. Sodano did not respond, the report said.

The White House denied any political motives behind the trip to the Vatican. Briefing reporters accompanying the president, a senior administration official said, "the Holy Father is not a political figure. And the president would never seek to make him into one."

-- Religion News Service

Woman Allowed to Sue Pastor

A woman who said her pastor told their congregation that she had an extramarital affair and was planning to divorce her husband is proceeding with a lawsuit against the minister.

The 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth ruled that Peggy Penley can sue the Rev. C.L. "Buddy" Westbrook, challenging his actions as a counselor under the Texas Licensed Professional Counselor Act.

Penley was a member of Westbrook's independent Crossland Community Bible Church when he involved her and her then-husband in group counseling to help their troubled marriage. However, church bylaws also allow the congregation to discipline members for inappropriate behavior, according to court documents.

"The key issue here is if pastoral counseling is protected by the First Amendment when the counselor in effect wears two hats," said Wade Birdwell, Westbrook's attorney.

Westbrook distributed a letter to the congregation saying Penley had been involved with another man and planned to get divorced, according to documents filed in the case. The letter stated that the congregation must break "fellowship with her until the time of repentance and restoration," adding that church members should not judge the family or gossip about them.

A state judge threw out the case two years ago, but the appeals court reinstated it last month. Westbrook's attorneys have argued that his religious beliefs are "inexorably intertwined" with his actions and that the statute on counseling imposed an unconstitutional burden on him as a pastor.

-- Associated Press

Religious Freedom Urged in Iraq

A federal advisory panel on international religious freedom urged Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to make religious freedom in Iraq a top priority for the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its annual meeting with Powell on Wednesday, asked that a "high-level official" be appointed to ensure "freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief and practice" in Iraq.

"The deplorable Abu Ghraib prison incidents highlight the necessity for the United States to ensure that human rights are protected both in U.S. actions in Iraq and in the permanent constitution," said Michael Young, chairman of the 10-member panel.

Spokeswoman Joanne Moore said the State Department is "examining the commission's recommendations closely before making the department's determination."

-- Religion News Service

Chinese City Repairs Synagogues

China's northeastern city of Harbin is restoring two synagogues for use as a museum about its history as a center for Jews fleeing czarist Russia, the government in Beijing said.

China served as refuge for thousands of Jews fleeing first Russia and then Nazi Germany. Though nearly all left after the 1949 Communist revolution, the government has restored synagogues in Shanghai and other cities as historical sites.

Work on the synagogues and a Jewish school in Harbin should be finished this year at a cost of $2.4 million, the official Xinhua News Agency said last week, citing Li Shuxiao, deputy head of the region's Jewish Studies Center.

More than 20,000 Jews lived in Harbin in the 1920s, making it the largest Jewish center in the Far East at that time, Xinhua said.

Despite the restoration of synagogues, Judaism is not one of China's officially recognized religions, and the government hasn't allowed use of the synagogues for worship.

-- Associated Press

A report in the National Catholic Reporter says President Bush appealed to Cardinal Angelo Sodano for support on their shared social agenda.