Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sunday Reading

Crossing Christie — Ryan Lizza at The New Yorker profiles the governor of New Jersey.

On April 1st, Chris Christie, the beleaguered Republican governor of New Jersey, attended a celebrity roast, in Newark, to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Brendan Byrne, the state’s governor from 1974 to 1982. “He’s an inspiration,” Christie told the audience, referring to Byrne, who won reëlection against long odds, because he has “shown that political comebacks can actually happen.”

Christie sat on a long dais with five former governors and five local comedians, listening to the guitarist John Pizzarelli sing an ode to the state: “I may leave for a week or two, but I’m always coming back.” Christie was seated next to former Governor Thomas Kean, a longtime supporter, but he did not say hello or shake his hand, and he glared at the comedians as they delivered their lines. “You scare the shit out of me,” Stewie Stone said to Christie during his routine.

Just five months earlier, Christie had won a sweeping reëlection, securing nineteen of New Jersey’s twenty-one counties, sixty per cent of the vote, and endorsements from Democratic officeholders. He won fifty-one per cent of the Hispanic vote and twenty-one per cent of the African-American vote. His plan was to shed part of his Jersey persona, and perhaps a few more pounds, and begin in earnest the transition from state politician to Presidential candidate.

But the past was catching up with him. In September, an unusual incident had occurred in Fort Lee, the small town on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. Without warning, the number of access lanes from Fort Lee to the bridge’s toll plaza had been reduced from three to one. The lanes were closed for four days, and the resulting traffic jams caught the attention of several Democratic legislators. They opened an investigation and eventually accused the Christie administration of engineering a plot to punish the town’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, for his failure to endorse Christie’s reëlection. The accusation seemed so ludicrous that Christie belittled a reporter for asking about it. “I moved the cones, actually, unbeknownst to everybody,” he said during a press conference in early December. But on January 8th an e-mail surfaced showing that Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie’s deputy chief of staff, had instructed David Wildstein, who was the Governor’s second-highest appointee at the Port Authority, the agency that runs the bridge, to engineer the gridlock. Months of scrutiny and withering criticism followed, and Christie’s approval rating fell twenty points.

Christie had spent the week before the Byrne event trying to repair the damage. He hired lawyers who, on March 27th, released a report declaring that he knew nothing about the plan and placing the blame on Kelly and Wildstein. The next weekend, Christie flew to Las Vegas and met with Sheldon Adelson, a right-wing billionaire who is looking for a Presidential candidate to fund. Christie managed to offend Adelson, who is a major supporter of the conservative Likud Party, in Israel, by publicly referring to the “occupied territories,” a term to which Adelson objects. (“Occupied territories” is common parlance among both Democrats and Republicans, but Christie, fearful of losing Adelson’s favor, apologized.)

The Newark roast wasn’t going well, either. The speakers aimed much of their fire at Christie. “You knew whose ass to kiss,” Stone said, referring to Christie’s trip to Vegas. “ ‘Whatever you say, Sheldon! Whatever you say!’ ” Vince August, a New Jersey judge turned comedian, noted, “It really is an honor to be standing next to what could be the next President of the—.” He shuffled some papers on the lectern. “I’m sorry, these are the wrong notes. I’m doing a roast next week with Jeb Bush.” Even Byrne got in a dig, about Christie’s waistline. “Somebody referred to that bronze statue of me that’s in the courthouse,” he said. “Actually, that was supposed to be Governor Christie, but they didn’t have enough money to pay for all that bronze.”

Joy Behar, the former co-host of “The View,” was even more pointed. “When I first heard that he was accused of blocking off three lanes on the bridge, I said, ‘What the hell is he doing, standing in the middle of the bridge?’ ” After another barb, Christie interrupted her. “This is a Byrne roast,” he said. He stood up and tried to grab her notes. The audience laughed awkwardly. “Stop bullying me,” Behar said as he sat down. Christie said something out of earshot and Behar responded, “Why don’t you get up here at the microphone instead of being such a coward?” Christie stood up again and moved in front of the lectern as Behar retreated.  “At least I don’t get paid for this,” he said.

Christie sat down and Behar continued, though she was noticeably rattled. “I really don’t know about the Presidency,” she said. “Let me put it to you this way, in a way that you’d appreciate: You’re toast.”

Before the bridge scandal, Christie was known as a governor who transcended New Jersey’s reputation for toxic politics and toxic dumps. He took on the exploding costs of the state’s pension system, reformed property taxes, and worked with his opponents in the legislature, and he provided decisive leadership after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. But the scandal hinted at a darker story line: that Christie’s barrelling style, and the dealmaking that had secured his rise through New Jersey politics, might as easily undo him.

Stuck In the Middle — Andrew O’Hehir in Salon takes on both sides in the religion vs. science debate.

Karl Marx’s famous maxim that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, can apply just as well to the history of ideas as to the political sphere. Consider the teapot-tempest over religion and science that has mysteriously broken out in 2014, and has proven so irresistible to the media. We already had this debate, which occupied a great deal of the intellectual life of Western civilization in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it was a whole lot less stupid the first time around. Of course, no one on any side of the argument understands its philosophical and theological history, and the very idea of “Western civilization” is in considerable disrepute on the left and right alike. So we get the sinister cartoon version, in which religious faith and scientific rationalism are reduced to ideological caricatures of themselves, and in which we are revealed to believe in neither one.

Young-earth creationism, a tiny fringe movement within Christianity whose influence is largely a reflection of liberal hysteria, is getting a totally unearned moment in the spotlight (for at least the second or third time). Evangelist Ken Ham of the pseudo-scientific advocacy group Answers in Genesis gets to “debate” Bill Nye the Science Guy about whether or not the earth is 6,000 years old, in a grotesque parody of academic discourse. Ham’s allies, meanwhile, complain that Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new “Cosmos” TV series has no room for their ludicrous anti-scientific beliefs. If anything, Tyson’s show has spent a suspicious amount of time indirectly debunking creationist ideas. They seem to make him (or, more properly, his writers) nervous. Not, as Ham would have it, because somewhere inside themselves these infidels recognize revealed truth, but because religious ecstasy, however nonsensical, is powerful in a way reason and logic are not.

Everyone who writes a snarky Internet comment about why the T-Rex couple didn’t make it onto Noah’s ark betrays the same nervousness, and so do earnest Northeast Corridor journalists who rush to assure us that Ham’s elaborate fantasy scenarios about fossils and the Grand Canyon are not actually true, and that we would all find science just as wonderful as religion if only we paid attention. (Such articles strike me as totems of liberal self-reassurance, and not terribly convincing ones at that.) Repeating facts over and over again doesn’t make them any more true, and definitely doesn’t make them more convincing. I suppose this is about trying to win the hearts and minds of some uninformed but uncommitted mass of people out there who don’t quite know what they think. But hectoring or patronizing them is unlikely to do any good, and if you believe that facts are what carry the day in American public discourse then you haven’t paid much attention to the last 350 years or so.

This creationist boomlet goes hand in glove with the larger political strategy of Christian fundamentalism, which is somewhere between diabolically clever and flat-out desperate. Faced with a long sunset as a significant but declining subculture, the Christian right has embraced postmodernism and identity politics, at least in the sense that it suddenly wants to depict itself as a persecuted cultural minority entitled to special rights and privileges. These largely boil down, of course, to the right to resist scientific evidence on everything from evolution to climate change to vaccination, along with the right to be gratuitously cruel to LGBT people. One might well argue that this has less to do with the eternal dictates of the Almighty than with anti-government paranoia and old-fashioned bigotry. But it’s noteworthy that even in its dumbest and most debased form, religion still finds a way to attack liberal orthodoxy at its weak point.

[...]

So on one hand we have atheists whose views would have seemed old-hat under Queen Victoria but who see themselves as representing the apex of progressive modern thought, and on the other we have a modern twist on religion that pretends to be ancient or traditional. Biblical fundamentalism as we know it today is essentially a 19th-century British invention that took root among white rural Americans much later than that. William Jennings Bryan, although revered as a forefather by today’s creationists, would have had nothing in common with them politically and very little theologically. (Bryan would have told you that the Bible was “true,” but he didn’t mean that God created the universe in six literal 24-hour days.) Islamic fundamentalism, the particular bugaboo of Dawkins and Harris, is more recent still, a metaphysical uprising against late modernism and the global force of Western consumer culture.

It would be foolish to deny that fundamentalism is or can be dangerous, but the liberal intelligentsia compulsively exaggerates the danger posed by the likes of Ken Ham or Pat Robertson, who are deemed to be plotting the theocratic overthrow of the republic when in fact they represent a marginalized constituency with little power. Fundamentalists oppose the science of climate change on supposed scriptural grounds, for instance, but on that issue they’re just serving as handmaidens to corporate money and power. In much the same way but on a larger scale, conservatives and government apparatchiks interpret the scattered and disparate actions of al-Qaida and its allies as an apocalyptic threat that justifies secret drone wars, unknowable levels of surveillance and the expenditure of countless billions.

Kathleen Sebelius’s Legacy — Jonathan Cohn at TNR looks at what the departing HHS secretary’s tenure brought us.

Sebelius brought two main assets to her job. She had experience regulating insurers and, as a successful Democrat in Kansas, she knew how to work with Republicans. But what Obamacare needed more was a deft, aggressive manager. Case in point: By all accounts, Sebelius did not grasp the severity of tech problems at healthcare.gov until the day it went live and crashed. If she got the warnings, then she should have heeded them. If she didn’t get the warnings, then she should have appointed people who would have kept her better informed. Either way, that’s a serious management failure.

Still, it’s not as if Obamacare’s implementation difficulties are entirely, or even mostly, the fault of HHS. It’s a typical, if predictable, failure of Washington to demand a fall guy when things go wrong. But responsibility rarely lies with just one person. (That’s one reason Obama resisted calls to fire her.) And this case is no exception.

Implementing Obamacare was never going to be easy. The law is full of compromises that, however politically necessary, weakened regulations and depleted funding that would have made introducing the new insurance system a lot easier. And Sebelius never had the kind of control a chief executive officer would. She was always dealing with a host of other players—from superiors at the White House to underlings at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to Democrats on Capitol Hill to lobbyists for the health care industry. And that’s to say nothing of her war with the congressional Republicans, who were trying actively to sabotage the law through repeal votes, funding cuts, and intimidation of would-be allies.

More important, the law seems to be working, despite all of those early problems. That 7.5 million figure she announced on Thursday is a genuinely big deal—particularly since, from what I hear, the final number is likely to be even higher. It’s now clear that Obamacare is succeeding in one of its primary goals—reducing the number of Americans without health insurance. The only question is by how much. “Secretary Sebelius took and will take her share of arrows for the initial roll out, but she unquestionably deserves credit for the recent successes,” says one former Administration official. “Her external cool was sometimes a liability, but it helped internally to avoid the finger pointing and to allow the Department successfully regain their sea legs.”

Of course, Sebelius can’t take all or even most of the credit for the Affordable Care Act’s improved performance, any more than she should take all or most of the blame for the law’s troubles. But any accounting of her tenure must include such achievements (and others, like improvements to Head Start and stronger regulations on child care safety). To take one obvious example, Sebelius worked extensively with Republican governors who wanted to expand Medicaid in states with hostile conservative constituencies. Some of those efforts succeeded.

Authorities from one of those states, Ohio, reported on Thursday that more than 100,000 low-income residents were getting coverage through the state’s expanded Medicaid. The announcement came just hours before the news about Sebelius’ resignation broke—and the juxtaposition seems fitting. The memories of Obamacare’s difficult start will certainly linger. But to the millions of people around the country who now have access to affordable medical care, I’m not sure that really matters.

Doonesbury — Thanks for the help.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

No Jews Either

Trail Life USA, the Jesus-freaks’ replacement for the Boy Scouts now that they let openly gay boys — but not leaders — into the troops, also doesn’t allow openly Jewish leaders.

Via Good As You, from Trail Life USA’s FAQ page:

Trail Life USA is a Trinitarian Christian organization with a Statement of Faith that includes those denominations that specifically recognize Jesus Christ as the prophesized Messiah of the Jewish scriptures. There are some groups like “Jews for Jesus” that recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiah, but continue to hold to Jewish traditions and customs regarding feasts, etc. A Messianic Jew could indeed be a leader. However, a person of the Jewish faith would not be able to sign our Statement of Faith. Thus, according to our membership standards, Jewish churches and organizations would be precluded from chartering Trail Life USA troops. And those of the Jewish faith would indeed be precluded as adult leaders based on their beliefs.

What a dull bunch of hateful people.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Megachurch Megabucks

NPR had a two-part story this week on All Things Considered about how churches are basically exempt from not just paying taxes but from any scrutiny by the IRS on how they get their money and what they do with it.

As NPR’s John Burnett reports, no other nonprofits in America – much less corporations – are allowed to generate so much cash with so little accountability.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Because of a quirk in rules by the Internal Revenue Service, the agency has effectively stopped auditing churches for the past five years. Marcus Owens is a private tax attorney in Washington, who used to lead the Exempt Organizations section at the IRS.

MARCUS OWENS: As of now, and in fact since 2009, the IRS has not, to the best of my knowledge, and, in fact, I don’t believe can conduct an audit of a church.

BURNETT: A church is the only type of nonprofit that enjoys special protection from an IRS audit. The Church Audit Procedures Act says a high-ranking Treasury official must sign off if the IRS demands a church’s records. But the IRS has not specified who that official should be. Here’s the catch: Until that happens, there’s no one in the government to authorize a church audit.

[...]

BURNETT: Of all nonprofits, churches face the least scrutiny and oversight. They don’t have to pay federal or local taxes. They don’t have to worry about being audited. And they don’t have to report anything to anybody. It’s reasonable to ask, then, what happens with large TV ministries that are classified as churches? They take in tens of millions of dollars in revenue. They’re as rich as large corporations, yet many of them are answerable to no one outside of the organization.

The reason is simple: no one in the government wants to be accused of religious discrimination, especially against the poor persecuted Christians that dominate the House, the Senate, and every legislature in the fifty states, not to mention the millions of people who carry on about a 0.05% increase in their property taxes but would crawl ten miles over broken glass to give their last dollar to Kenneth Copeland.

Speaking of Mr. Copeland, he lives in a palatial estate that looks more like a resort at Disney World than a parsonage, which is how his property is described on the tax-exempt list.

BURNETT: Copeland is a 77-year-old Pentecostal evangelist from West Texas, renowned for his folksy sermons and extensive personal property. We decided to take our own look at his assets.

Last August, I drove to his ministry complex with Pete Evans, who investigates religious groups for the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation.

So we’re sitting in an air-conditioned minivan on a Sunday morning in the middle of Kenneth Copeland’s empire here, about 20 miles north of Fort Worth. And surrounding us are all the properties that the local appraisal district has taken off the tax rolls. The church and the ministry building together are valued at about three and a half million dollars. Kenneth Copeland’s airport in front of us here is valued at $8.8 million.

PETE EVANS: The property we’re looking at, the hangar, houses two jets: one Cessna Citation, one of the fastest private jets in the world, currently valued at about $10 million. And then they have another jet worth a couple million stored in that same hangar that we’re looking at.

BURNETT: The most impressive building of all is the $6.3 million residence of Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, which is exempt from property taxes because it’s listed as a parsonage.

The bottom line, so to speak, is that if you want to make a huge fortune without any scrutiny from the government, you can either go into the waste disposal business in New Jersey or you can start preaching the gospel and set up an 800 number with a Pay Pal account.

The fastest way to get the IRS and Congress to look into the megachurch business is to have someone open a mega-mosque and start talking about Allah on cable TV.  They’d be on that operation faster than a second collection.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Ghosts of Rulings Past

Today is the day the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments as to whether or not private for-profit companies can claim a religious exemption from the Affordable Care Act because it would provide contraception to their employees, something the corporate owners don’t believe in.  Religious groups are already exempt from the rule, but Hobby Lobby, a crafts chain owned by very conservative religious people, want in on it too.  (Interestingly, the company was fine with the contraception coverage in their health insurance until Obamacare came along.  I wonder what it was that changed their minds.)

Given the make-up of the court and their previous rulings that have been nearly obsequious to corporate interests, a lot of watchers are understandably nervous that the justices could rule that corporations can have religious views.  That would open an entirely new chapter in corporate personhood, and the consequences — intended or otherwise — could fundamentally change the relationship people have with their employers and corporations have with their customers.  It could also make laws such as the one vetoed last month in Arizona that allowed companies to discriminate against certain customers possible.

As Sahil Kapur explains, it might not be a slam dunk for Hobby Lobby based on previous rulings by the Court written by one of its most conservative and Catholic justices: Antonin Scalia.

In 1990, Scalia wrote the majority opinion in Employment Division v. Smith, concluding that the First Amendment “does not require” the government to grant “religious exemptions” from generally applicable laws or civic obligations. The case was brought by two men in Oregon who sued the state for denying them unemployment benefits after they were fired from their jobs for ingesting peyote, which they said they did because of their Native American religious beliefs.

“[T]he right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability,” Scalia wrote in the 6-3 majority decision, going on to aggressively argue that such exemptions could be a slippery slope to lawlessness and that “[a]ny society adopting such a system would be courting anarchy.”

“The rule respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind,” he wrote, “ranging from compulsory military service, to the payment of taxes, to health and safety regulation such as manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws, and traffic laws; to social welfare legislation such as minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws, and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races.”

That opinion could haunt the jurist if he seeks to invalidate the birth control rule.

“Scalia will have to reckon with his own concern in Smith about the lawlessness and chaos created by liberal exemptions to generally applicable law,” said Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at UCLA. “For him to uphold an exemption now is to invite more of the lawlessness that he warned about.”

The case comes down to what takes precedence in the laws in this country: religious beliefs or the Constitution.  Justice Scalia answered his own question:

“To permit this,” he wrote in Smith, quoting from an old court decision, “would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

A ruling is expected by the end of June.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sunday Reading

Supreme Being — Ta-Nehisi Coates on why progressives misunderstand the role of white supremacy in America’s history and present.

​Arguing that poor black people are not “holding up their end of the bargain,” or that they are in need of moral instruction is an old and dubious tradition in America. There is a conservative and a liberal rendition of this tradition. The conservative version eliminates white supremacy as a factor and leaves the question of the culture’s origin ominously unanswered. This version can never be regarded seriously. Life is short. Black life is shorter.

On y va.

The liberal version of the cultural argument points to “a tangle of pathologies” haunting black America born of oppression. This argument—which Barack Obama embraces—is more sincere, honest, and seductive. Chait helpfully summarizes:

The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.

The “structural conditions” Chait outlines above can be summed up under the phrase “white supremacy.” I have spent the past two days searching for an era when black culture could be said to be “independent” of white supremacy. I have not found one. Certainly the antebellum period, when one third of all enslaved black people found themselves on the auction block, is not such an era. And surely we would not consider postbellum America, when freedpeople were regularly subjected to terrorism, to be such an era….

Beyond Hobby Lobby — Stephanie Mencimer at Mother Jones takes a look at what the implications of the Supreme Court case concerning Obamacare vs. corporate religious freedom could mean for other interpretations of the law and Constitution.

…Of course, the case isn’t just about Hobby Lobby. The Supreme Court is using it to address dozens of similar lawsuits by other companies that, unlike Hobby Lobby, object to all forms of contraception. But the inconvenient set of facts here are just one reason why the case hasn’t garnered a lot of support outside the evangelical community. Many religious people are uneasy with the idea of corporations being equated with a spiritual institution. At a recent forum on the case sponsored by the American Constitution Society, the Mormon legal scholar Frederick Gedicks, from Brigham Young University, said he was offended by the notion that selling glue and crepe paper was equivalent to his religious practice. “I’m a religious person, and I think my tradition is a little different from an arts and craft store,” he said.

Women’s groups fear a ruling that would gut the ACA’s contraceptive mandate. The business community, meanwhile, doesn’t want to see the court rule that a corporation is no different from its owners because it would open up CEOs and board members to lawsuits that corporate law now protects them from, upending a century’s worth of established legal precedent.

No one seems to really have a sense of how the court might rule. On one side, court watchers have speculated that with six Catholics on the bench, Hobby Lobby has a decent shot of prevailing. But then again, one of those Catholics, Chief Justice John Roberts, is also sensitive to the interests of corporate America. He seems unlikely to do anything that might disrupt the orderly conduct of business in this country and make the US Chamber of Commerce unhappy, as a victory for Hobby Lobby could. Scalia is an ardent abortion foe, but his view of Native American peyote users might incline him to find for the government.

Finding a reasonable way out of this case won’t be easy. The litany of bad outcomes has some legal scholars rooting for what might be called “the Lederman solution“—a punt. Georgetown law professor Martin Lederman has suggested that the lower courts have misread the contraceptive-mandate cases by assuming firms such as Hobby Lobby have only two choices: provide birth control coverage or pay huge fines to avoid violating their religious beliefs. He argues that while the ACA requires individuals to purchase health insurance, it doesn’t require employers to provide it. If companies choose to do so then the insurance companies must cover contraception without co-pays. Hobby Lobby and the other companies currently suing the Obama administration can resolve their problems by simply jettisoning their health insurance plans and letting their employees purchase coverage through the exchanges.

An employer that drops its health plan would have to pay a tax to help subsidize its employees’ coverage obtained through the exchange or Medicaid, but this option is actually far cheaper than providing health insurance. And if a company doesn’t even have to provide insurance, much less a plan that covers contraception, Hobby Lobby doesn’t have much of a case that the ACA burdens its free exercise of religion…..

Mark Twain, Stand-Up Comic — In an excerpt from The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature, Ben Tarnoff tells how Samuel L. Clemens, the writer that defined American literature, became Mark Twain.

…On the evening of October 2, 1866, the Academy of Music swelled to capacity. From the footlights to the family circle, the house was packed. “It is perhaps fortunate that the King of Hawaii did not arrive in time to attend,” cracked a journalist, “for unless he had gone early he must have been turned away.” The fashionable men and women of “the regular opera ‘set’ ” turned out in full. The wife of the current California governor, Mrs. Frederick Low, sat in a box. Even Harte came to show his support. He arrived with “a big claque,” an observer later recalled, almost certainly with Stoddard in tow.

At eight o’clock, the crowd started stomping its feet. When Twain appeared in the wings, they broke into thunderous applause. He ambled forward with a lurching, graceless gait, his hands thrust in his pockets. “I was in the middle of the stage,” he recalled, “staring at a sea of faces, bewildered by the fierce glare of the lights, and quaking in every limb with a terror that seemed like to take my life away.” For several moments he stood silently staring, as the energy in the house ripened to an unbearable pitch. Then the words came: slow and deliberate, quirky and crude—the voice of the frontier, drawing its listeners under.

For seventy-five minutes, they laughed, clapped, and cheered. A “brilliant success,” raved the next day’s Evening Bulletin. Twain met the demands of a “serious” lecture by covering the islands’ economy, politics, history—yet he deftly interwove these with a current of comic tension that kept his audience on a hair trigger, primed to ignite at any moment. An absurdity might slip discreetly into the stream of his story, and then another, sparking laughter that rose and crested just as he suddenly shifted gears, delivering a passage of such heartfelt eloquence that the house fell solemn and silent. This was more than humor: it was “word painting,” said a reporter, a tapestry of anecdotes and images recorded by Twain’s all-seeing eye. He didn’t just make people laugh. As with “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” he brought a faraway place to life.

Ever since Twain first began writing, he had tried to give his words the flavor of living speech. Dashes, italics, phonetically transcribed dialect—these were meant to make readers hear a speaker’s special vibrations, the glottal tics of different tongues. Onstage, he could do this directly, breaking free of the filter that confined his written voice. He could feel out his audience, refine his rhythms. Unlike the spiritualists, suffragists, and fake scientists then sweeping lyceum halls across the country, he didn’t declaim in the usual authoritative style. He took a more intimate tone. He wanted to connect. He gazed at people’s faces. He played with his hair, kneaded his hands. He looked nervous, and dressed carelessly. He wasn’t a smooth performer, and this was the key to his peculiar charm. He didn’t hold himself apart; he talked plainly, unpretentiously. He brought people inside the joke. He made them feel like he belonged to them.

Doonesbury — Speak to me.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Religious Freedom Is For Christians Only

A school district in Louisiana ended up on the short end of a court ruling after a judge ruled that it discriminated against a Buddhist student.

The ACLU claimed victory after U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Foote on Friday ordered the Sabine Parish School Board, which serves about 4,000 students in western Louisiana, to reform its practices in response to the allegations by C.C., a Buddhist student of Thai descent, and his family, the Lanes. The order, known as a “consent decree” agreed upon by the plaintiffs and defendants, was entered as a “judgment in favor of the Plaintiffs,” Foote said.

[...]

The complaint alleged that a science teacher at the school, Rita Roark, told her class, which C.C. attended, that the Big Bang never happened and that God had created the universe 6,000 years ago. She allegedly refused to teach the theory of evolution to the class, saying it was a theory “stupid people made up because they don’t want to believe in God.”

“If evolution was real, it would still be happening,” Roark allegedly said. “Apes would be turning into humans today.”

The last question on a test administered by Roark allegedly asked: “ISN’T IT AMAZING WHAT THE _____________ HAS MADE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

The correct answer was “Lord,” according to the complaint. But C.C. left the answer blank because he didn’t know the answer. Roark allegedly scolded C.C. in front of the rest of the class for not providing the correct response. After a second incident where C.C. was allegedly disparaged in front of the class by his teacher, C.C. told his mother about the incidents.

Roark also allegedly said during a social sciences class that Buddhism, C.C.’s religion, is “stupid.”

Begin the countdown for Ms. Roark to sue the school board and the ACLU for infringing on her right to freedom of religion.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Religious Liberty Quiz

Via Hecate, take this little quiz devised by Rev. Emily C. Heath.

Just pick “A” or “B” for each question.

1. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to go to a religious service of my own choosing.
B) Others are allowed to go to religious services of their own choosing.

2. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to marry the person I love legally, even though my religious community blesses my marriage.
B) Some states refuse to enforce my own particular religious beliefs on marriage on those two guys in line down at the courthouse.

3. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am being forced to use birth control.
B) I am unable to force others to not use birth control.

4. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to pray privately.
B) I am not allowed to force others to pray the prayers of my faith publicly.

5. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) Being a member of my faith means that I can be bullied without legal recourse.
B) I am no longer allowed to use my faith to bully gay kids with impunity.

6. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to purchase, read or possess religious books or material.
B) Others are allowed to have access books, movies and websites that I do not like.

7. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) My religious group is not allowed equal protection under the establishment clause.
B) My religious group is not allowed to use public funds, buildings and resources as we would like, for whatever purposes we might like.

8. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) Another religious group has been declared the official faith of my country.
B) My own religious group is not given status as the official faith of my country.

9. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) My religious community is not allowed to build a house of worship in my community.
B) A religious community I do not like wants to build a house of worship in my community.

10. My religious liberty is at risk because:

A) I am not allowed to teach my children the creation stories of our faith at home.
B) Public school science classes are teaching science.

Scoring key:

If you answered “A” to any question, then perhaps your religious liberty is indeed at stake. You and your faith group have every right to now advocate for equal protection under the law. But just remember this one little, constitutional, concept: this means you can fight for your equality — not your superiority.

If you answered “B” to any question, then not only is your religious liberty not at stake, but there is a strong chance that you are oppressing the religious liberties of others. This is the point where I would invite you to refer back to the tenets of your faith, especially the ones about your neighbors.

How did you do?

HT to NTodd.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Not In Kansas Anymore

The Kansas legislature wisely turned away from enacting legalized gay-bashing in the name of religious freedom; at least this session.  So the torch has been passed to another bunch of bigots, this time in Arizona.

The Arizona Senate voted 17-13 along party lines on Wednesday to approve SB 1062, a bill that would allow “any individual” to practice their religious beliefs without government consequence — essentially imposing a religious license to discriminate throughout the state. The House may take it up as early as Thursday.The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Steve Yarbrough (R), asserts that “this bill is not about discrimination,” but about “preventing discrimination against people who are clearly living out their faith.” The bill would clearly go a step farther and allow those individuals to impose their religious beliefs on others. Like bills that have been proposed in other states but faltered, that most obviously would mean open season to discriminate against the LGBT community. Democratic Senators who opposed the bill highlighted numerous other possibilities that its vague language would allow:

Sen. Robert Meza, D-Phoenix, said the measure would allow a hotel operator who believes Mormonism is a cult to refuse to provide rooms to a family who walked in wearing Brigham Young T-shirts, indicating their religion. [...]

Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, wondered openly whether SB 1062 would provide new license for people like Warren Jeffs, head of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, to act against those who refuse to follow his edicts.

And Sen. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, said the wording of the measure even would allow those who worship Satan to use their beliefs as a legal shield.

Yarbrough offered no counterargument to these claims, simply acknowledging that “the freedom of religion can be inconvenient.” He has previously said that such discrimination isn’t really a problem so long as there’s another business willing to provide the service nearby.

He gets a bonus square on Bigot Bingo by throwing in the idea of “separate but equal.”  The Christian baker won’t sell you a wedding cake?  Fine, try the Jewish deli next door.

The blatant unconstitutionality of this bill is so obvious that even I get it.  The bill allows discrimination as long as its along sincerely held religious grounds.  That requires the establishment of some standards of what “sincerely held” means and WHAM: there’s that pesky old First Amendment.  The state cannot define what qualifies as a valid religion without crossing that line.

Then the law of unintended consequences kicks in with a vengeance.  Any individual can practice their religious beliefs without government consequence?  Setting aside the anti-gay discrimination, this opens the door to all sorts of things such as slavery (“Hey, it’s in the bible”) and stoning people to death for planting wheat next to corn.  Speaking of stoning, I can see a whole lot of new faiths springing up like the Church of the Holy Bong where blazing a doobie is as sacred as a sip of wine at communion.  That’s not a communion wafer, it’s a peyote button.

I hope the good people of Arizona have set aside a lot of money to pay the lawyers because of the hundreds of lawsuits that will be filed and which they will most assuredly lose.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Darwin Award Nominee

Via TPM:

Pastor Jamie Coots, one of the stars of National Geographic’s “Snake Salvation,” died on Saturday after he was bitten by a snake, police told WBIR.

Coots was allegedly bit while handling a snake at his Pentecostal church in Kentucky, Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name, and later died in his home, according to WBIR.

A medical team went to Coot’s house, but he refused medical care, Middlesboro Police Chief Jeff Sharpe told WBIR.

Coots was a “serpent handler” who believed that snake bites will not hurt believers, according to CNN.

He had five rattlesnakes confiscated last year by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, where owning venomous snakes is banned.

I’m sorry for his family, but when you live by the snake….

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Don’t Mess With the Sun God

I know I’ve brushed off the Bill Nye/Creationist debate, but there’s been some fun follow-up that I had to share.

Amanda Marcotte does a hilarious take-down of the questions put forth by Creationists that are meant to stump the Evolutionists.  For example:

“How do you explain a sunset if their [sic] is no God?”

It’s true, this one is a stumper. Some say that the sunset is caused because the sun god who rides his chariot through the sky every day crash lands on the ground, only to be reborn in the sunset, gently expelled by Mother Earth in a ray of light every morning. Some say the sun is a giant fireball God throws across the sky that explodes every night. Scientists clearly have no explanation, which goes to show that they are full of shit.

Even Pat Robertson doesn’t buy the Creationist view.

“Let’s face it, there was a bishop [Ussher] who added up the dates listed in Genesis and he came up with the world had been around for 6,000 years,” Robertson said. “There ain’t no way that’s possible. To say that it all came about in 6,000 years is just nonsense and I think it’s time we come off of that stuff and say this isn’t possible.”

He continued: “We’ve got to be realistic that the dating of Bishop Ussher just doesn’t comport with anything that is found in science and you can’t just totally deny the geological formations that are out there.”

When Pat Robertson tells you to get real, the show’s over.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

I’ll Show You ‘Peace On Earth’

A Salvation Army bell-ringer outside a mall in Phoenix was slugged by a self-described Christian for saying “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

Kristina Vindiola says a woman hit her outside a Phoenix Walmart after she said “Happy Holidays.”

“The lady looked at me,” said Vindiola. “I thought she was going to put money in the kettle. She came up to me and said, ‘Do you believe in God?’ And she says, ‘You’re supposed to say Merry Christmas,’ and that’s when she hit me.”

Torquemada has a condo in Scottsdale.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Believer Or Not

Via NBC in Philadelphia:

High school teacher Michael Griffin was fired from his position at Holy Ghost Preparatory School in Bensalem on Friday after applying for a marriage license in New Jersey with his partner, a move that the school says “contradicts the terms of his teaching contract.”

Griffin, an alumnus of the private all boys liberal arts Catholic high school, had taught Spanish and French at the school for the past 12 years. He first  posted about his termination on Facebook Friday morning.

[...]

He says that he was blindsided by the school’s reaction and that his relationship with his partner had never been a secret to faculity [sic] and administration.

“I’ve been with my partner for more than 12 years, the entire time I’ve been teaching at the school,” said Griffin. ”He’s been to numerous school functions with me, he’s even been to McCloskey’s house.”

When contacted for comment, the school’s headmaster, Fr. James McCloskey, said in a statement that Griffin’s termination was due to his obtaining a license to marry his same-sex partner, a violation of the school’s teaching terms and the contract that Griffin was under.

“At a meeting in my office yesterday, teacher Michael Griffin made clear that he obtained a license to marry his same sex partner,” McCloskey wrote in a statement obtained by NBC10. “Unfortunately, this decision contradicts the terms of his teaching contract at our school, which requires all faculty and staff to follow the teachings of the Church as a condition of their employment. In discussion with Mr. Griffin, he acknowledged that he was aware of this provision, yet he said that he intended to go ahead with the ceremony. Regretfully, we informed Mr. Griffin that we have no choice but to terminate his contract effective immediately.”

He believes this section of the teachers code of conduct is the one that led to his firing:

“That, although, the School welcomes teachers from other denominations and recognizes their rights to religious freedom, as employees of a Catholic institution, all teachers are expected to uphold lifestyles compatible with the moral teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.”

My heart goes out to Mr. Griffin and his partner, but I also believe that he knew the terms of his contract.  It’s unfair and doesn’t sound like the teachings of Christ — after all, wasn’t he the one who said something about loving thy neighbor as thyself?  And it’s a bit of a gobsmack for the Catholic Church to get all het up about solemnizing same-sex marriage; apparently the only same-sex activity they approve of — at least tacitly — is the kind out back of the sacristy with teenage boys.

It also raises the question of whether or not an employer can impose his or her religious values on their employees regardless of whether or not they are fellow believers in their particular brand of faith.

This isn’t idle speculation.  The Supreme Court will hear arguments in March 2014 as to whether Hobby Lobby, a for-profit craft supply company, can opt out the Obamacare requirement of allowing its employees to obtain birth control, something that violates the sensibilities of the fundamentalist ownership of the company.  The law has skirted around the issue by granting exemptions to religious institutions, but does that go so far as to allow private employers to impose their views on the private lives of the employees?  Are the non-Jewish personnel at Hebrew National expected to keep kosher homes?

I also wonder if we’re looking at a Scopes-style situation where Mr. Griffin pushed the school to take action against him so he could sue for wrongful termination and thereby test the waters of challenging the faith-based exemption.  I hasten to add that I don’t think that’s what he set out to do when he decided to get a marriage license, but it could be an interesting test to see if even a church can require an employee — believer or not — to live up to their bigoted expectations.

HT to J.M.G.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Why Would Anyone Think That?

Cardinal Timothy Dolan is shocked and saddened that anyone would ever think that the Catholic Church might be anti-gay.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan said on Friday that the Roman Catholic Church was being “caricatured as being anti-gay,” even as he lamented the continued expansion of same-sex marriage in the United States and vowed to keep fighting it.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Cardinal Dolan and his clan have fought every advance for gay rights while allowing pedophiles to run rampant through the church and doing everything they possibly can to shield them from the reach of the law and the victims, all the while letting the world think that being gay and being a pedophile are the same thing.  And until they denounce hate mongers in the church like Bill Donohue, they’re going to have to live with it.

That’s not a caricature; it’s the brutal truth.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Without A Prayer

The Supreme Court will rule next year on whether or not corporations can have faith.

The cases accepted by the court offer complex questions about religious freedom and equality for female workers, along with an issue the court has not yet confronted: whether secular, for-profit corporations are excepted by the Constitution or federal statute from complying with a law because of their owners’ religious beliefs.

The justices accepted two cases that produced opposite results in lower courts.

One was brought by the owners of Hobby Lobby, an arts-and-crafts chain that its owner, David Green, said is run on biblical principles. The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver said forcing the company to comply with the contraceptive mandate would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law providing special protections for religious expression.

In a divided opinion, the appeals court relied in part on the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which said corporations have political speech rights just as individuals do in spending on elections.

“We see no reason the Supreme Court would recognize constitutional protection for a corporation’s political expression but not its religious expression,” Judge Timothy Tymkovich wrote for the majority.

The second case went the other way. A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia ruled that Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Pennsylvania cabinet-making company owned by a Mennonite family, must comply with the contraceptive mandate.

In both cases, the plaintiffs are conservative Christians who object to contraception and don’t want to be a part of allowing their employees to use birth control.  Given the current make-up of the Court, it’s 50-50 that they could rule in favor of the plaintiffs and thereby open the floodgates of evangelicals objecting to everything that touches their particular faith, including discrimination against certain people or people of a certain color or ethnicity and have the Court’s tacit backing for it.

That also lets the door swing the other way.  Say you have a business that is run by a religious person who is a progressive; a Quaker, perhaps.  He or she views over-population as a mortal threat to the planet and therefore requires that every employee, male and female, have contraception coverage on their insurance plan regardless of the employee’s faith and practice.  If there are any hard-core Catholics in the company who object to having that rider on their insurance, well, too bad.  (Of course, no true Quaker would ever do that.)

It goes beyond health insurance.  What if the company owner is Orthodox Jewish and requires that the company allows only kosher food in the building, even for those who aren’t Jewish.  Can he be penalized for firing a worker who brings a cheeseburger or clam chowder for lunch?

I will begrudgingly give ground to churches who don’t want to hire LGBT people if their doctrine includes gay-bashing even though I’m indirectly supporting them by allowing them to skate around the tax code.  But I draw a very bright line when it comes to for-profit businesses whose owners feel that their own personal religious peccadilloes have any bearing on the lives of their employees.

If you want to make millions of dollars and use the Ten Commandments as your business model, open a mega-church.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Butch Jesus

Retired General Jerry Boykin has holy locker room fantasies about our lord and savior:

Do you think he looked like the effeminate picture that we always see of him? He didn’t look like that. He had big ole calluses over his hands, right? I imagine he probably lost a nail or two, he probably hit it with a hammer or something.”

“You think his biceps weren’t big bulging biceps, big ole veins popping out of his arms, thin waist, strong shoulders from lifting? He smelled bad! Why? Because he sweated, he worked. You think I’m sacrilegious because I said Jesus smelled bad? No, he was a man! He was a man’s man.”

Biceps Jesus
“He was a tough guy, and that’s the Jesus I want to be like. But we feminize Jesus in the church and men can’t identify with him anymore, not the kind of men I want to hang out with. They can’t identify with this effeminate Jesus that we’ve tried to portray.”

Okay, General, whatever turns you on.  Who are we to judge?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Short Takes

The first day of Obamacare health exchanges had a few snags due to pent-up demand.

President Obama told the GOP to reopen the government.

Pope goes after the Catholic church’s bureaucracy.

U.S. expels 3 Venezuelan diplomats in retaliation for them expelling one of ours.

Pirates beat the Reds for a NL wildcard spot.

Tropical Update:  TS Jerry moves east way out in the Atlantic.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Short Takes

House GOP drags the budget and the government to the edge of the cliff.

Syria turns in its homework.

Is the Pope really Catholic?

Lyons, Colorado, may be unlivable for 6 months after flooding.

Tropical Update: There’s yet another disturbance off the Gulf coast of Mexico.

The Tigers beat the White Sox 12-5; Max Scherzer gets his 20th win, and the magic number is 3,