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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A small evangelical Christian denomination called Sovereign Grace Ministries was already grappling with fractured leadership, outside scrutiny of its policies and public criticism from former members when a new round of problems emerged.

A lawsuit last fall brought by former members accused church officials of covering up allegations of child sexual abuse committed by its members. Then a onetime member of the church's former flagship congregation was indicted in December on charges that he molested multiple boys in the 1980s while involved in youth ministries.

The church hasn't yet answered the specific accusations, but has signaled that it may lean on the First Amendment — a defense that religious institutions have used repeatedly and with some limited success in the last decade to inoculate themselves from sex abuse claims.

A statement issued in response to the lawsuit, filed in Maryland, says permitting courts to second-guess confidential advice given by church leaders to congregation members would "represent a blow to the First Amendment."

"We are saddened that lawyers are now, in essence, seeking to violate those rights by asking judges and juries, years after such pastoral assistance was sought, to dictate what sort of biblical counsel they think should have been provided," the statement said. The church's formal response to the lawsuit, due Monday, is expected to provide a window into its legal strategy.

The First Amendment argument, advanced by some legal scholars, derives from a belief that churches ought to be considered autonomous, self-governing institutions whose internal decision-making is off-limits to secular courts. Religious institutions, including the Roman Catholic Church, have invoked the Constitution in arguing that they shouldn't be liable for the hiring or supervision of a priest facing abuse allegations.

"To the extent there's a First Amendment issue they're talking about, it is not about sexual abuse as a First Amendment right. It is about the church deciding for itself how to respond to claims of misconduct among its members," said Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor who specializes in the law of religious liberty.

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker planned to release details of his income tax cut on Wednesday as part of his state budget that also expands the private school voucher program, continues a freeze on spending in public schools, tightens income eligibility for Medicaid and puts state properties up for sale to pay for roads projects.

Walker was scheduled to deliver the budget to the Republican-controlled Legislature on Wednesday evening. The plan will be debated by the Legislature's budget committee over the next four months, then be voted on by both the Senate and Assembly sometime before it takes effect in July.

Walker has released major parts of his budget in the weeks leading up to his speech. Walker has said his proposed income tax cuts will affect those making between $20,000 and $200,000 a year.

"Our focus is simple — more prosperity, better performance and true independence," Walker said in an excerpt of his speech provided before delivery. "Our middle class tax cut is a down payment on my goal of reducing the tax burden in our state every year I'm in office. I want to cut taxes over and over and over again until we are leading the country in economic recovery."

Much of Walker's plan will find broad support in the Republican-controlled Legislature but Democrats spoke out against major parts of it before he delivered his speech Wednesday.

"The governor's proposals are bad for the short term and bad for the long term in Wisconsin," said Rep. Peter Barca, Democratic minority leader in the Assembly.

Walker's budget is shaped by his desire to run for president in 2016, said Scot Ross, director of the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now.

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NEW YORK (AP) — New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan has been deposed in connection to accusations of sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

New York Archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling says Dolan's deposition started Wednesday afternoon in New York City. It is unclear how long it is expected to last.

Dolan led the Archdiocese of Milwaukee before he was appointed to the New York position in 2009.

The Milwaukee archdiocese is facing numerous lawsuits over how it handled clergy sex abuse cases. It filed for bankruptcy in January 2011.

Dolan has been mentioned in some church circles as a potential — albeit longshot — choice to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, who is resigning next week.

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TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — Live Asian carp don't necessarily have to be present for their DNA to turn up in the environment, according to a government study released Wednesday that could intensify the debate over how to prevent the aggressive, hungry invaders from reaching the Great Lakes and other vulnerable waters.

DNA is found in excrement, slime and scales from live fish. But the report by three federal agencies identifies six other possible means through which genetic fingerprints from bighead and silver carp could find their way into locations such as the Chicago waterway system and western Lake Erie, where it has been detected in dozens of samples taken in recent years.

Those potential pathways include storm sewers, fisheries sampling gear, fish-eating birds, dead fish carcasses, barges and sediments, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in a statement accompanying the report. It said carp DNA attached to any of those sources could remain for days before disintegrating.

Scientists with the corps, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey are conducting a three-year study designed to answer questions raised by the repeated discovery of Asian carp DNA in rivers and canals in the Chicago area — including locations beyond an electric barrier intended to block the carp's northward march toward Lake Michigan. Their DNA also has been found in the Mississippi River beyond Minneapolis.

"The purpose ... is to improve the understanding and interpretation of Asian carp environmental DNA results, so we can refine and make this relatively young monitoring tool the most effective to detect live Asian carp presence," said Kelly Baerwaldt, an Army corps fisheries biologist and Asian carp program manager. Additional reports are planned as the study continues.

Bighead and silver carp escaped into the Mississippi River from sewage treatment ponds and fish farms in the Deep South decades ago and have migrated northward, invading numerous tributary rivers. The filter feeders gobble massive volumes of plankton — microscopic plants and animals crucial to aquatic food webs.

Scientists say if allowed to infest the Great Lakes, the carp eventually could crowd out native species, endangering the region's $7 billion fishing industry. Silver carp, which spring from the water when startled and have collided jarringly with boaters, pose a threat to tourism.

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