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Dispatches The Buzz (Publick Occurrences)

Bethel Update--Banned in Oklahoma

Not long after Bethel College president George Brushaber hosted Ed and Dorothy Sisam and their daughter Andrea June 16 for an informal luncheon meeting aimed at reconciliation, one of the key issues that caused conflict between the parties flared again. In Oklahoma last week, at the behest of an anti-pornography activist who had just heard about the Sisams' battle with Bethel over use of the film Tin Drum as part of a classroom exercise, a state judge issued an advisory opinion declaring the film in violation of the state's child-pornography laws. Police seized copies of Tin Drum from several Blockbuster Video locations, private homes, and at least one public library. Use of Tin Drum late last year as part of the curriculum in one of her Bethel courses was the final straw for Miss Sisam, who had been involved in a lengthy dispute with the Christian school over other classroom issues (see WORLD's "Class dismissed," May 17/24). She withdrew from Bethel, and in the following months, her parents, who are lawyers, sued Bethel, accusing the school of misrepresenting itself as a Christian institution. Bethel countered by suing Miss Sisam for harming its reputation. Now Tin Drum is acquiring a reputation. Liberal free-speech advocates are making the film a cause celebre; stories about the Oklahoma seizures appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, and on ABC's Good Morning America. The news also reached Bethel officials in St. Paul, Minn. Richard Sherry, Bethel's dean of faculty growth and assessment, speculated to WORLD that the judge's ruling might be overturned, but he later stipulated that the college had no official comment on the situation. Mr. Sherry said, "We are in the process of examining policies and making changes in the way we do things; that I can say officially."

ARMed and dangerous

Due to production problems and legal troubles, full-scale introduction of the French abortion pill, RU-486, is on hold. But a small, New York-based pro-abortion group is pushing ahead with a stopgap measure that will give up to 10,000 American women access to the abortion-inducing drug. Abortion Rights Mobilization (ARM) announced July 3 it will expand its "research trials" of RU-486, bringing the drug-in the words of ARM president Lawrence Lader-"within reasonable traveling distance of all U.S. women." The Food and Drug Administration, which claims RU-486 is "safe and effective," has given ARM its OK. The drug, also called mifepristone, causes a "non-surgical" abortion, in which a woman's body rejects and expels a developing child. In New Jersey, the teenager who gave birth in a bathroom during her senior prom was charged with murder after an autopsy concluded that the 6-pound, 6-ounce child she tossed into a trash can was either strangled or suffocated. Melissa Drexler, 18, had kept her pregnancy a secret from family and friends. Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman vetoed the state legislature's attempt to outlaw partial-birth abortion. Elsewhere, Virginia became the 39th state requiring minor girls to get permission from one or both parents before having an abortion. In Florida, a new law requires doctors to tell any woman who wants to abort her child about alternatives to abortion.

Keeping the covenant

On the final day of the Louisiana legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill allowing couples to choose a marriage contract that restricts the grounds for divorce. Couples married under a new "covenant marriage" option will be precluded from seeking divorce except in cases of adultery, abuse, abandonment, "habitual intemperance," or marital separation of two years or more. Other couples will still have recourse to "no-fault" divorce. The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the covenant marriage bill as "an attempt to use the government to enforce [a] religious doctrine regarding divorce."

Air apparent

President Clinton tried to clear the air with his environmental allies June 25 by publicly backing proposed new EPA regulations (which he said "will be somewhat controversial") that drastically tighten clean-air standards across the country. But environmentalists the next day regarded Mr. Clinton's speech at the U.N. Earth Summit as blowing smoke. The president rebuffed European Union efforts to win his agreement to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions to 15 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2010. Instead, he offered the unspecified promise of "a strong American commitment" in time for negotiations in December toward a new global greenhouse-gas treaty. Meanwhile, House Democrat John Dingell of Michigan vowed he is ready to "go to war" with the White House over the proposed air-quality standards. Mr. Dingell said the new regulations would carry "enormous economic burdens" and vowed legislation to block implementation of the EPA rules.

Apart from the Bible

Homosexuals, some in various degrees of undress, marched, danced, and sang their way up New York's Fifth Avenue June 29, commemorating Gay Pride Day. The city's top politicians marched alongside drag queens, nearly nude dancers, and men wearing tight miniskirts. San Francisco had a similar march. Meanwhile, the Montana Supreme Court threw out that state's ban on homosexual sex, ruling government has no concern with the sexual activity of consenting adults. Two women with multiple sclerosis were found dead in Detroit-area motels July 2, apparently the work of assisted-suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian. Mr. Kevorkian's attorney refused definitively to link his client with the killings, but said, "There's no question about what happened here." The American Medical Association, meeting in Chicago, said the government should make it easier for intravenous drug addicts to get clean needles. Member of the AMA's House of Delegates said access to clean needles will help fight the spread of AIDS. Congress enacted a ban on federal financing of needle-exchange programs in 1988, believing such programs promote illegal drug use.

The budget tango

Legislation balancing the budget and cutting taxes handily passed the House and Senate before lawmakers adjourned for their summer break. Balanced-budget bills won 270-162 approval in the House and 73-27 in the Senate on June 25; on June 26, House members OK'd a tax-cut bill and the Senate followed suit the next day. The debate is far from over. Differing provisions in the House and Senate bills still must be reconciled and Republican leaders want the final budget and tax packages that emerge to have the blessing of the White House. That won't come easily. Despite the broad budget accord hammered out this spring, Republicans and President Clinton differ on the details. Mr. Clinton June 30 criticized the GOP tax proposals and suggested they would be vetoed if some provisions weren't changed. Congressional Republicans are also divided over a Senate tax increase of 20 cents per pack of cigarettes, approved June 27, to fund a new entitlement program providing health insurance to uninsured children; a House bill does not contain the provision. Budget issues are also contentious. Senate legislation to means-test Medicare (raising premiums for wealthier seniors) and phase in an increase in the eligibility age is not included in the House budget package. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said if the president refuses to get behind the Medicare change, Congress would likely delete it in the final plan sent to the White House.

Rising Starr, falling Starr

Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr won a big victory at the Supreme Court June 23, but took it on the chin in the court of public opinion two days later. The high court refused to overturn a federal appeals court decision that the White House must turn over to Mr. Starr potentially damaging notes of conversations between Hillary Clinton and government lawyers. Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported June 25 that Mr. Starr's investigators had been questioning Arkansas state troopers about the extramarital liaisons of Mr. Clinton while he was governor. White House aides loved the story, the Post noted, because they thought it made Mr. Starr look desperate. Oddly, the story that so cheered Clinton loyalists confirmed the truthfulness of a 1993 American Spectator story detailing adulterous affairs. The Post reported that Trooper Roger Perry told the Starr investigators that he and others "took Clinton to or provided vehicles to transport him to clandestine meetings with 'seven or eight' ... women ... at times when Hillary Clinton was out of town or asleep." The Clinton legal team kept Troopergate alive by leaking a 1994 affidavit from Arkansas trooper Ronald Anderson recanting negative stories about Mr. Clinton that Mr. Anderson had confirmed for a tell-all book project. Mr. Anderson said he wrongly confirmed stories about which he had no firsthand knowledge, in hopes of cashing in. On June 26, AP reported President Clinton sought to cash in for the Democratic National Committee by dialing for dollars from the White House. "BC made 15 to 20 calls, raised 500k," White House aide David Strauss wrote in notes turned over to congressional investigators. A White House spokesman confirmed the story, but insisted the president did nothing improper in seeking donations on government property.

Not done yet

Ending months of complicated negotiations with state attorneys general and plaintiff's lawyers, cigarette makers agreed to pay a $368.5 billion settlement to finance anti-smoking programs, provide health insurance for poor children, and compensate states for the costs of treating smoking-related illnesses-but the hard-fought deal could go up in smoke on its way to congressional approval. Anti-smoking groups are complaining that tobacco companies get off too lightly under the settlement. Some members of Congress-including House Speaker Newt Gingrich-worry that too much of the proposed payout would end up in the pockets of trial lawyers

Hong Kong handover

In a picturesque ceremony June 30 at Hong Kong's newly completed waterfront convention center, the strains of "God Save the Queen" rang out at 11:59 p.m, played by a band of Scots Guards in full regalia. A few feet away British soldiers lowered the Union Jack one last time. Exactly at the stroke of midnight, as July 1 began, another group of musicians launched into the Chinese national anthem and China's red banner with five gold stars was hoisted over the Chinese city that's been under British rule for 156 years. As it regained sovereignty over Hong Kong (Britain's lease on the territory expired), China assumed control of the world's most vibrant, and largely unregulated, capitalistic economy. Promising a policy of "one country, two systems," communist leaders have said they will take a largely "hands off" approach to Hong Kong's economy. Political freedoms, however, have been circumscribed. After swearing in, Hong Kong's new leaders, appointed by Beijing, approved a previously announced package of new measures to restrict political protest, but those laws were not immediately enforced. Following the handover, thousands of demonstrators, protesting the new restrictions, marched on the main government offices without interference. Hong Kong's new chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, pledged that "so long as they are lawful and peaceful, [demonstrations] can go right ahead." While it remains uncertain what impact the transfer to Chinese rule will have on the Christian church, Mr. Tung made no secret of where he's placing his faith. Reuter reported that, at a gathering of more than 40,000 Buddhists on the day of the Hong Kong handover, Mr. Tung said: "With the Buddha's blessings, may the nation enjoy prosperity and the people live in peace and happiness." n Space crash A reportedly overloaded unmanned cargo drone rammed into the Russian space station Mir June 25, punching a small hole in the space station and causing air to leak out. The three-man crew, two Russians and one American, weren't hurt, but were forced to turn to alternative oxygen sources and work in a darkened and partially shut-down facility until repair attempts can be made.

G-7 plus one

Russia had better success at the Group of Seven summit in Denver. Leaders of the world's seven major industrial powers made the former Soviet republic an all-but-official eighth member. By the end of the three-day meeting, major newspapers were referring to the gathering as the Summit of the Eight. The final communique from the group included concerns over Japanese trade surpluses and European unemployment, and also urged a global ban on human cloning.

Who's prejudiced?

Characterizing the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on homosexuality as simply "catering to the prejudices of heterosexuals," a federal judge struck down the policy as discriminatory and unconstitutional. Judge Eugene Nickerson of the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn rejected the government's claim that having open homosexuals in the military harms "unit cohesion." Such a claim, he said, is not rooted in actual military considerations but simply reflects "the moral precepts and ethical values" of service members opposed to homosexuality. The ruling marks the second time Judge Nickerson, appointed in 1977 by President Carter, has criticized the policy. In a 1995 ruling on the free-speech aspect of the policy, he likened the Pentagon position on homosexuality to Adolf Hitler's persecution of Jews. "Don't ask, don't tell" is a compromise policy worked out between President Clinton, who wanted to lift the military's longtime ban on homosexuals, and members of Congress who fought to keep the ban. The policy has faced repeated court challenges, with some judges upholding the policy and others striking it down in whole or in part. The Nickerson decision likely will be appealed.

Setting stars

The film industry lost two long-time leading men: Jimmy Stewart, the stammering, aw-shucks actor who embodied the values of decency and moral courage both in life and on screen, died July 2 from a blood clot in his lung. He was 89. Robert Mitchum, who made his mark playing tough private eyes, cynical outlaws, and heroic GIs, died July 1 at age 79. He suffered from emphysema and lung cancer.