COLUMBIA, MO—Public debate and controversy over a planned Islamic community center and mosque to be built near New York’s Ground Zero ignited a national debate about religious freedom that kept the story in the news for months. The story was voted the No. 1 religion story of 2010 in the annual Top 10 Religion News Stories of the Year poll of Religion Newswriters Association members. The center’s leading proponent, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, was voted the 2010 Religion Newsmaker of the Year. Public opinion and outcry over the mosque reached a peak when a pastor of a small Florida church threatened to burn a Qu’ran in protest, a bravado that fueled fears of international backlash against the United States until the pastor backed down. As newsmaker of the year, Rauf beat out Pope Benedict XVI, the many faith-based workers helping victims of the Haitian government, and Sarah Palin, who devoted significant portions of her second best selling book arguing that candidates for office take a public Christian stand.
The complete Top 10 Religion Stories of 2010, in order from first to tenth are:
1. A proposal to build an Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero leads to a national debate on religious freedom, with strong statements on both sides as the 9/11 anniversary approached. A Gainesville, Fla., pastor, who vowed to burn copies of the Qu’ran in protest, backs down.
2. The catastrophic earthquake in Haiti sparks relief efforts by many and varied faith-based groups. One by Idaho Southern Baptists leads to child-smuggling accusations, as well as to examinations of others’ practices. Leader Laura Silsby is imprisoned for four months.
3. Pope Benedict XVI is accused of delaying church action against pedophile priests in Ireland, Germany, the United States and other countries when he led the Vatican office in charge of discipline 1981 to 2005. Several bishops resign. Benedict continues to criticize the church’s handling of past cases.
4. The rise of the Tea Party movement is seen by some as a return to political prominence for the religious right; others see it as stressing economic rather than social issues. Mormon Glenn Beck pushes a Washington rally. Election results are mixed. One Tea Party candidate who loses, however, is Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, who was pilloried for responding to critics with an ad that stated, “I am not a witch.”
5. President Obama signs the health-care reform bill for which many faith-based groups labored. Near year’s end the Catholic bishops repeat their strong opposition to it due to the belief that it provides funding for abortions, and lament support some Catholics gave it.
6. Sexuality continues as a hot topic among mainline congregations. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA votes for the fourth time to lift the ban on noncelibate gay clergy; the presbyteries are again voting on it. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America suffers scores of defections after its 2009 vote on the issue. The Episcopal Church is asked by the archbishop of Canterbury to take a lesser role in the Anglican Communion after a lesbian assistant bishop is ordained.
7. The prolonged economic slump spells trouble for additional churches and ministries. In the highest profile case, the Crystal Cathedral declares bankruptcy after downsizing efforts fall short. The Lutheran publishing house, Augsburg Fortress, drops its pension plan; Focus on the Family cuts 110 employees; the Seventh-day Adventist publishing arm removes top executives.
8. Bullying draws attention with several suicides attributed to it, including a New Jersey college student. Religious groups strongly condemn it, but some see it as having religious roots, especially in regards to homosexuality. Several religious voices take part in the “It gets better” YouTube video project to encourage gay youth not to commit suicide or succumb to depression.
9. The U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey released by the Pew Forum offers some surprising findings, including that atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons had the highest correct answers.
10. The U.S. Supreme Court convenes for the first time ever without a Protestant in its number (6 Catholics and 3 Jews). The court hears arguments in the case of the Kansas church that loudly protests at the funerals of servicemen; the decision will come this spring. The Court earlier allows a cross to remain at least temporarily on National Park land in the Mojave Desert, but then the cross is stolen.
The other items on the ballot, ranked 11 to 20:
11. Faith-based aid workers are slain in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Half of Iraq’s 750,000 Christians have left it since 2003.
12. Faith-based environmental groups gain new impetus from the BP oil spill, building on efforts in recent years to place creation care at the top of religious leaders’ priorities.
13. Faith-based groups continue to press for immigration reform. Southern Baptist leader Richard Land calls for giving illegal immigrants “a compassionate, just pathway to earning citizenship or legal status.”
14. In November, more than 80 percent of state voters approved a measure amending the Oklahoma Constitution to prevent state courts from using Islamic law or international law. After a federal judge temporarily blocks the ruling, Oklahoma state attorneys vow to appeal the federal block
15. U.S. Courts of Appeals rule on a large number of religion-related issues, with mixed results. The 7th OKs a moment of silence in schools and says a college student group cannot be denied funds because of its religious activity; the 9th reverses its ‘02 ruling on “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, saying the phrase is not a prayer; the 10th bans metal crosses for deceased Utah police; the 11th says feeding the poor does not qualify as free exercise of religion; the 2nd invalidates FCC indecency policy.
16. Pope Benedict XVI warns against “aggressive secularism” on the first visit of a pope to the United Kingdom in 28 years. Meanwhile, a new survey shows church attendance in Britain has stabilized or gained a little after decades of decline. The UK coalition government said it plans to fund religious schools with state money.
17. The Rev. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, is disinvited from a Pentagon National Day of Prayer observance because of previous criticisms of Muslims. The Day of Prayer continues despite legal attempts to stop it.
18. President Obama makes a strong pitch for religious tolerance on his visit to Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country. Meanwhile, he continues to seek reconciliation between Jews and Muslims in Palestine.
19. President Obama signs an order reforming the White House faith-based office to improve transparency and clarify rules for religious groups that receive federal grants; members of his advisory committee are generally pleased. The question of hiring and firing on a religious basis will be decided case by case.
20. Hinduism gains more of the spotlight through the book “Eat, Pray, Love” and word of star Julia Roberts’ conversion to it. At least one prominent conservative Protestant leader gains attention-criticizing yoga.
Results are based on an online survey of more then 300 journalists with a response rate near 30 percent. The Religion Newswriters Association is the world’s premier association dedicated to helping journalists write about religion with balance, accuracy and insight. Founded in 1949, the association is headquartered at the Missouri School of Journalism. The association has conducted its Top 10 Religion News Stories of the Year for nearly 30 years.