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Kidnappers of American Missionary in Nigeria Demand Ransom
ABUJA, Nigeria - The armed men who abducted an American missionary this week in Nigeria are said to be demanding a ransom of nearly $300,000.
     The Rev. Phyllis Sortor's sponsoring denomination, the Free Methodist Church, says she was kidnapped from the Hope Academy compound in Kogi state on Monday morning by five armed men.
     Kogi State's police commissioner reported the ransom demand, noting that "the general concept here is that Americans have money." But he said, "We don't think it's a good idea for the family to negotiate with the abductors on the ransom because we are sure we will find her."
     The Rev. Brenda Young, a friend and supporter of Sortor's who pastors a church in Akron, Ohio, says she doesn't believe Sortor would want ransom to be paid for her release because it would only encourage future kidnappings.
Abducted Syrian Christians Moved to Militant Stronghold
BEIRUT - Islamic State militants have moved a large group of Christians they abducted to one of their strongholds amid fighting between the extremists and Kurdish and Christian militias for control of a chain of villages in northeastern Syria.
     The state-run SANA news agency and the Assyrian Network for Human Rights in Syria said the hostages were moved to the Islamic State-controlled city of Shaddadeh.
     SANA quoted the patriarch of the Greek Catholic church as saying that in addition to the abductions, the militants destroyed one of the oldest churches in Syria.
     Religious minorities in both Syria and Iraq have been repeatedly targeted by the Islamic State group. During the group's bloody campaign in both countries, where it has declared a self-styled caliphate, minorities have been repeatedly targeted and killed, driven from their homes, had their women enslaved and places of worship destroyed.
     The Assyrians are indigenous Christians who trace their roots back to the ancient Mesopotamians.
Justices Weigh Case of Muslim Denied Job over Headscarf
WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court seems to be siding with a Muslim woman who didn't get hired by clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch because she wore to her interview a black headscarf that conflicted with the company's dress code.
     Liberal and conservative justices aggressively questioned the company's lawyer during arguments at the high court Wednesday in a case that deals with when an employer must take steps to accommodate the religious beliefs of a job applicant or worker.
     Applicant Samantha Elauf did not say she was wearing the scarf for religious reasons. But Justice Samuel Alito seemed to speak for many on the bench when he said there was no reason not to hire her unless the company assumed she would wear a headscarf to work because of her religion.

Clark County Council Putting 'In God We Trust' on Wall
VANCOUVER, Wash. - The Clark County Council has voted to display the words "In God we trust" on the wall of its public hearing room in Vancouver, Washington.
     The Columbian reports that the 2-1 vote followed weeks of debate and four hours of public comment Tuesday night from an overflow crowd. About 80 people spoke, almost evenly split between those for and against posting the national motto on a wall of the chamber.
     Supporters holding signs that read "In God We Trust," shouted "Amen," ''Praise Jesus" and "Hallelujah." Opponents raised signs reading "E Pluribus Unum" and "Stop divisive distractions."
     The "In God we trust" motion had failed at a meeting two weeks earlier for lack of a second.

Pickens County School Board to Consider Prayer Again
EASLEY, S.C. - South Carolina's Pickens County School Board is going to take another look at its prayer policy.
     The Greenville News reports that the board voted 3-2 Monday to put the issue on the agenda for the March 23 meeting.
     Trustee Alex Saitta said the district has received information from the state attorney general and the district's insurance company since, delaying action on the policy in October. The policy would allow local ministers to offer prayers at meetings according to their consciences, on a rotating basis.
     Saitta says he wants an up or down vote on the policy.
     The policy is based on one the U.S. Supreme Court approved for the town of Greece, New York.
     The policy discussion has drawn crowds of protesters at board meetings for the past two years.

Rabbi Who Presided Over Gay Wedding Leads House in Prayer
AUSTIN, Texas - The rabbi who defied Texas' same-sex marriage ban and wed a lesbian couple last week has led the morning prayer in the Texas House, catching staunch supporters of the prohibition off-guard.
     Rabbi Kerry Baker on Wednesday cautioned state representatives to pay special attention to those who are marginalized and to treat all members of the community equally.
     He said, "It's not enough to do what is good for the majority, but to do what is good for all of us."
     Neither House Speaker Joe Straus nor Republican Rep. Cecil Bell, who has filed a bill to prohibit county clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses, was aware that Baker presided over a lesbian marriage last week.
     On Tuesday, Bell celebrated the 10-year anniversary of Texas' same-sex marriage ban with a birthday cake.
Officer in Gay Pride Parade Incident Speaks Out
SALT LAKE CITY - A Salt Lake City police officer who was put on leave and later resigned after he objected to riding in the motorcycle brigade at the front of last year's gay pride parade is speaking out against what he believes was a violation of his religious liberties.
     Eric Moutsos says he was unfairly branded a bigot despite simply asking to swap roles and work a different part of the parade. The 33-year-old Moutsos, a Mormon, says he felt uncomfortable because of his religious views.
     He said he's coming out with his story now to be a voice in a national debate about LGBT rights and religious protections.
     Salt Lake Police stand behind their decision to put him on leave, saying any hint of personal biases can affect an officer's ability to do his job.

Religious Groups Support Moore's Gay Marriage Stand
MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Supporters who rallied around Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore during his 2003 Ten Commandments fight are backing him again in his stand against gay marriage.
     The Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition praised Moore for resisting improper "judicial overreach." Mahoney held a Wednesday press conference with pastors who held rallies in support of Moore after he placed a Ten Commandments monument in the state judicial building.
     Moore urged probate judges to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, saying they are not bound by a federal judge's finding that Alabama's gay marriage ban is constitutional.
     Mahoney says it is offensive to compare Moore to former segregationist Gov. George Wallace. Mahoney says Moore is fighting in the tradition of those who fought unjust court rulings allowing segregation and slavery.

NC Senate Response to Gay Marriage Rulings is Approved
RALEIGH, N.C. - Some North Carolina court officials could opt out of marriage duties - including same-sex weddings - under legislation given state Senate approval Wednesday following a debate weighing religious liberties against newly-expanded rights to marry.
     The bill would give magistrates and workers in register of deeds offices the ability to remove themselves from working on marriages because of religious objections. At least a half-dozen other states are considering similar exemptions, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which supports gay marriage.
     The measure, now headed to the House, was filed after federal judges in October overturned North Carolina's same-sex marriage ban. That prohibition was added to the state Constitution in a 2012 referendum. A handful of magistrates resigned as the state court system told them they were obligated to carry out all marriages.
Arkansas Panel Rejects 'Conscience-Protection' Measure
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - A proposal to prevent state and local governments from infringing on a person's religious beliefs has failed before an Arkansas legislative panel amid criticism that it was an attempt to justify discriminating against gays and lesbians.
     The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the "conscience protection" measure, a day after retail giant Wal-Mart said the measure sent the wrong message about its home state and Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he had reservations about the bill.
     It was a victory for gay rights groups, days after Hutchinson allowed separate legislation to become law that bans local governments from expanding anti-discrimination protections to include sexual orientation or gender identity.

Michigan Priest Pleads Guilty in Child Pornography Case
DETROIT - A Catholic priest who worked at a Detroit high school faces at least 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to a child pornography charge.
     The Rev. Richard Kurtz appeared in Detroit federal court Wednesday and acknowledged transporting child porn to Chicago in 2011.
     Investigators say that Kurtz also secretly recorded video of hockey players while they changed clothes in the late 1990s. They were students at University of Detroit Jesuit High School, where he was a chemistry teacher for years.
     Other priests found the video among his possessions after Kurtz was charged with sexually assaulting a student on a trip to Colorado.
     The 69-year-old Kurtz will return to court for his sentence on July 14. His plea agreement calls for a minimum of 10 years in prison.

Vatican Apologizes to Mexico for Pope's Drug Remarks
VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis' casual speaking style has gotten him into diplomatic trouble.
     The Vatican said Wednesday it had sent a note to Mexico's ambassador insisting that Francis "absolutely did not intend to hurt the feelings of the Mexican people" by referring to the "Mexicanization" of his native Argentina from drug trafficking.
     Francis made the reference in an email to an Argentine friend involved in combating the drug trade, who then made it public. Mexico formally complained to the Vatican.
     In a statement Wednesday, the Vatican said the Pope's words were contained in a personal email and that he had merely repeated a phrase that his friend had used. It said Francis in no way wanted to detract from Mexico's efforts to combat drug trafficking.
West Bank Mosque Torched by Suspected Israeli Extremists
JERUSALEM - Suspected Israeli extremists have torched a Palestinian mosque in the West Bank and left Hebrew graffiti at the site.
     Jibreen al-Bakri, governor of the Bethlehem region, says the mosque in the village of Jabaa near Bethlehem was set alight at dawn Wednesday, damaging the mosque's walls and carpeted floor.
     Israeli TV showed footage of Hebrew graffiti on the walls that read "we want the redemption of Zion" and "revenge" alongside a Jewish Star of David. The Israeli army said it was investigating.
     Jewish vandals have targeted mosques, churches, Palestinian vehicles, dovish Israeli groups and even Israeli military bases in so called "price tag" attacks to protest Israeli government actions against settler activity.

Muslim Anti-Terrorism Conference Calls for Education Reform
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - An anti-terrorism conference in Saudi Arabia attended by Muslim clerics from around the world has ended with leaders calling for reform in religious studies to promote moderation and tolerance.
     The final communique from the conference, titled "Islam and the Fight against Terrorism", also called for "comprehensive reform" in the way Islamic law is practiced and said that while no religion is responsible for terrorism, Muslim extremists have distorted the image of Islam.
     The statement echoed the opening remarks at the conference of the grand sheikh of Egypt's Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's respected seat of learning. Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb called for educational reform to correct a historical misreading of the Quran and the life of Muhammad.
     The three-day conference in Mecca ended Wednesday.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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