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Religion news in brief

Low rates of vaccinations in Ashland prompts study request

ASHLAND, Ore. (AP) Southern Oregon University and Jackson County health officials are hoping to get money for a study of Ashland's low rate of child vaccinations, due largely to religious exemptions.

In 2010, 25 percent of Ashland students didn't get all their vaccines, more than double the percentage in 2001. Of the 3,117 students enrolled in public and private schools, 777 claimed the religious exemption the highest rate in the state.

Those numbers prompted a request to study why that's happening. Jackson County commissioners will decide Wednesday whether to provide the $10,000 funding.

The SOU Research Center will use the money to conduct interviews with parents, compile the data and file the finished study by June 2013. It will include an evaluation on the outreach team's effectiveness in helping to boost vaccination rates.

Egypt's Islamist hard-liners oppose Christmas greetings

CAIRO (AP) An ultraconservative Egyptian Islamist group says sending Christmas greetings to Christians is "against our beliefs," a position immediately rebuked by other Muslims.

Nadar Bakar, spokesman of the hard-line Al-Nour party, said Wednesday that Muslims should give greetings to Christians only on "personal occasions," not religious ones.

Al-Nour represents the ultraconservative Salafi movement, which wants to strictly impose Islamic law in Egypt. Al-Nour has won a surprisingly strong 20 percent of the vote so far in Egypt's staggered parliamentary elections.

The remarks prompted Egypt's Al Azhar, the most eminent religious institution, to issue a religious edict approving Christmas greetings. The country's most influential Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, responded by sending "its best Christmas wishes to our brotherly Christians and Muslims as well."

ACLU says Indiana violating court order requiring kosher prison food for some inmates

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana has asked a judge to hold the state Department of Correction in contempt for failing to provide four inmates with kosher food.

Ken Falk, an ACLU attorney, said corrections officials haven't complied with a 2010 federal court order requiring kosher meals be offered for inmates observing Jewish dietary laws.

The inmates are in state prisons in Michigan City, Pendleton and Putnamville.

An Orthodox Jewish inmate sued in 2009 after the agency began substituting vegan meals for kosher meals, citing higher costs. A spokesman for the corrections department said the agency has a process for reviewing kosher diet requests that it believes complies with the court order.

NC Baptist leader wants civil debate on marriage

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The newly elected president of North Carolina's largest religious denomination said he hopes for a civil debate over a proposal to ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution.

The Rev. Mark Harris, president of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, said he understands the question is an emotional one.

But Harris said he thinks both sides can respectfully argue their cases.

Harris was elected to a one-year term last month. The convention represents roughly 4,300 churches and some 1.3 million members in North Carolina.

Voters will decide in May whether the state constitution should be amended to ban same-sex marriage.

About 250 clergy from multiple denominations have signed a statement denouncing the proposal.

US attorney in Detroit reviewing Muslim group's religious freedom complaint over school zoning

PITTSFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) The U.S. Attorney's Office in Detroit is reviewing a religious discrimination complaint against a community for rejecting a zoning change that would allow construction of a Muslim school.

The Michigan Islamic Academy wants to build at a 26-acre site in Washtenaw County's Pittsfield Township.

"We are reviewing the matter and whether to proceed with a formal investigation," Assistant U.S. Attorney Judith Levy said.

On Oct. 26, the township board rejected the request, following an earlier rejection by the township planning commission. School officials say the 200-student school is too big for its location in nearby Ann Arbor.

Township Supervisor Mandy Grewal said the decision isn't based on religion.

"We are an open, respectful and diverse community here in Pittsfield Township," Grewal said after the October decision. "We have a track record, most recently the planning commission approved a mosque."

The Council on American-Islamic Relations said the decision violated the First Amendment right of religious freedom, and it asked the Justice Department to investigate.

"We believe this is a blatant violation of the (school's) constitutional right to open the school on their property," said Lena Masri, a lawyer for the group.

Ohio-born comedian "The Funny Indian" to tour India and spread message of religious harmony

FAIRFIELD, Ohio (AP) An Ohio-born standup comedian who bills himself as "The Funny Indian" will find out whether people in his ancestral homeland agree.

Rajiv Satyal, who is Hindu, will tour India with an Indian-American Muslim and one other performer on a Jan. 4-17 trip organized by the U.S. State Department. Their comedy show "Make Chai Not War" will include messages of diversity and religious harmony, with a measure of diplomacy.

His routines often include jokes about being Indian-American, he says.

"I'm pretty much going to do my act. But the tone changes," Satyal said. "If I do a lot of Indian jokes with an Indian audience, it's a `you guys know what I'm talking about' thing. Whereas, if I'm in Alabama, it's more explanatory."

Satyal and Azhar Usman of Chicago founded the "Make Chai Not War" show. A third Indian-American, Hari Kondabolu of the New York borough of Queens, will join them on the tour. The three also will conduct comedy workshops while on the trip.

Satyal said comedy can help bridge differences.

"It's cool to be able to go to India because that's where a lot of religious strife has been happening," he said. "We're not even really religious on stage. We might do some religious jokes, but it's more just bringing people together."

The 35-year-old native of Hamilton, Ohio, honed his comedy while working for consumer products maker Procter & Gamble Co., in a regular column for a company-produced newsletter. He also appeared in comedy clubs.

In 2006, he left the company and moved to Los Angeles.

Before the tour, Satyal has been spending time with his family in the northern Cincinnati suburb of Fairfield. He graduated from Fairfield High School, whose sports teams' nickname is Indians, for Native Americans.

"I guess I really was a Fairfield Indian," Satyal said.

Rajiv Satyal's Web site is www.funnyindian.com.