Take Action: Speak Out on "Conscience Clauses"
The other day, I got this action alert from FFRF that I thought was worth passing along:
As you may know, on August 1st, 2011, the Internal Revenue Service, Department of Labor, and Department of Health and Human Services jointly announced new guidelines for access to preventative care. The new regulations greatly expand access to preventative care under the new health care act, particularly for women. One of the most significant changes is the provision that all FDA-approved contraceptives (including emergency contraception), as well as contraceptive counseling and education, shall be provided without a co-pay fee.
...Ironically, while these provisions are almost certain to reduce the number of abortions in the U.S., religious groups are fighting these health services and demanding broad exemptions based on religious and "conscience" grounds.
...FFRF would prefer that no religious employer exemption be provided. However, some religious groups are agitating for broader exemptions... They want to grant religious third parties the right to deny medical care and FDA-approved treatment on the basis of personal "conscience" – without regard to the conscience of the women who are actually impacted by these preventative services! Reproductive rights opponents, particularly Catholic and evangelical organizations, are lobbying to expand this narrow exception so that any organization even vaguely affiliated with religion (such as denominational hospitals open to the public) can deny basic healthcare to women in need of contraception and contraceptive counseling.
Full coverage for contraceptives is one of the all-too-rare unequivocally good moves by the Obama administration, and we can't let the advocates of religious misogyny dilute it. The "conscience clause" is an insidious and harmful way for believers to claim that their superstitions excuse them from complying with the law, and we need to push back against its expansion. The administration should hear loud and clear from us that any exceptions to this rule should be as narrow as possible.
If you want to leave a comment, go to regulations.gov, click on the "submit a comment" button, and enter "CMS-9992-IFC2" into the keyword search field. There will be three results, which all refer to this same regulation, so you can comment on any of them. The comment period closes on Friday, so get to it!
Here's the one I sent in:
To Whom It May Concern:
Access to contraception is a human right and should be protected accordingly. That's why I'm writing to urge you not to expand the exemptions to the recently announced rule that requires all employers to cover contraception for their employees without a co-pay.
The vast majority of men and women in America, regardless of their religious beliefs, use contraception at some point during their lives. Birth control ensures that every child is a wanted child, and by doing so, leads to happier and more stable families and less poverty and more education for children. There's every reason for a democratic government to strongly support its use and ensure that everyone who wants it has access to it. Please don't bow to the demands of a small, noisy minority. Leave this rule as is!
Help the Filipino Freethinkers
I'm no PZ Myers, but I've been known to crash a poll now and then. And today, you can do it for a good cause: helping the Filipino Freethinkers win the Globe Tatt Award, which recognizes innovative use of social media and comes with a cash prize. Here's the e-mail I got from FF member Jeiel Aranal:
The Filipino Freethinkers is currently in the running for two categories in the Globe Tatt Awards, a local social media award. The prizes we could win in the awards would go a long way in helping us with our projects in the future. So far, all of our work has been self funded while we regularly go toe to toe with the Roman Catholic Church which has, well, crazy large coffers.
The awards we're up for are "The Advocate" and "The One" categories. The Advocate is for the best social media advocacy. We've been using our blog, Facebook and Twitter to get people to think about issues and to act an discuss on the issues at hand. The One is for the best overall use of social media. http://filipinofreethinkers.org/2011/08/10/vote-for-the-filipino-freethinkers-at-the-globe-tatt-awards/
10% of the final decision is decided by a public online vote, we could really use your help with promoting our group and asking people to vote for us. The voting is held on this website and people will need a Facebook account to cast a vote. We just recently managed to climb to the top spot in The One category but there is still more than a week to go for the voting so we still need help in securing our position.
For the excellent work they've done to oppose the Roman Catholic church in one of its few remaining strongholds, the Filipino Freethinkers deserve our support. Voting requires a Facebook account, so if you have one, please go to this link to cast your ballot.
Take Action: Tell Montreal Police to Investigate Threats Against Atheists
If you've been around the atheist blogosphere for very long, you're probably acquainted with Dennis Markuze, a notorious net kook who's been spamming atheist blogs, forums, bulletin boards, wikis, social networking sites, and every other website he finds out about with insane, nonsensical rants about Nostradamus, 9/11 and his various other obsessions. He's been at this literally for decades, and apparently has a limitless supply of time and sockpuppet accounts with which to do it. (However frantically he changes accounts, though, I give my word that you'll never see him befoul Daylight Atheism. I take the integrity of my commenting community seriously.)
But in the last year or so, his cryptic messages have grown increasingly violent and threatening, and often include death threats against prominent atheist bloggers. Despite this, and despite massive, overwhelming evidence that he's deeply disturbed and potentially dangerous, the police in Montreal, where he lives, have consistently failed to take any action.
Now there's a petition telling the Montreal police to take Markuze's threats seriously. Please sign it if you've encountered his insanity: the more signatures we get, the harder it will be for the police to ignore. We've been lucky in that he hasn't actually hurt anyone so far, but it may only be a matter of time until he goes completely off the deep end. If he does snap, it's more likely to be the people who know him personally who get hurt, and I hope it doesn't come to that before he gets the help he badly needs.
UPDATE (8/17): With a little media attention, the petition has worked! Montreal police announce an arrest (they haven't officially said that it's Markuze, but I've heard unofficial confirmations that it is). Skeptical Software Tools has an outstandingly thorough summary of the entire affair.
Atheist Action Items
• We've all been following the news about the massive earthquake and tsunami that's devastated Japan, and I won't waste your time rehashing the details. Help on an international scale is urgently needed, and the Foundation Beyond Belief has stepped in and is raising funds for the Japanese Red Cross. They've already collected almost $10,000, but that's just a drop in the bucket compared to what's needed. Visit their ChipIn page and contribute if you can.
• On another note, my good friend and general paragon of awesomeness Greta Christina is compiling a list of living atheists who are people of color, similar to Jen McCreight's list of female atheists. The intent is to offer the completed list as a resource for conference organizers who want to diversify their lineup, but don't know or can't find any non-white atheists to invite. Go check out the comment thread, and if you know of anyone who hasn't been mentioned, please add them!
Help Bring Freethought to Prisoners
The United States of America is the prison capital of the world, incarcerating far more people than any other nation (including China, which has over four times our population and is a repressive dictatorship). And most atheists already know that Christian proselytizing is rampant in prisons, with programs that both skirt the Constitution and blatantly trespass on it.
Given these facts, it makes sense for the atheist movement to care about what happens behind prison walls. Although atheists are known to be underrepresented in prison relative to our share of the general population, that doesn't mean that there aren't prisoners who are desperately seeking an alternative to omnipresent, coercive religious evangelism. Any real education we can offer them, as opposed to indoctrination with fundamentalist superstition and dogma, would be an extremely welcome breath of fresh air.
That's why, on suggestion from a reader (thanks, Jerry!), I want to recommend the Freethought Books Project, an effort to get atheist and freethought books to inmates and others in need. Donations of both money and books are welcomed. There are also prisoners who'd like to correspond with freethinkers on the outside, so if you'd prefer, you can volunteer to be a pen pal as well. If you have the time and the interest, please consider it!
An Appeal for Haiti
We now interrupt your regularly scheduled flame war for this important announcement.
As everyone has no doubt heard, Haiti was hit by a colossal earthquake last night; the city of Port-au-Prince is in ruins, and tens of thousands of people may be dead. If you're able to help, please consider making a donation to the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders. And if simple human compassion doesn't move you, consider it doing it to spite that wicked, heartless old fraud Pat Robertson, who said that the people of Haiti got what they deserved for rebelling against slavery. His religion made him evil; now, for Haiti's sake, I hope that our atheism makes us good.
UPDATE: I'm proud to see that atheist organizations are joining the effort. As commenters have mentioned, there's the Foundation Beyond Belief. The American Humanist Association also has a relief fund, and the FFRF has made a donation to Doctors Without Borders.
Take Action: Help Free Kareem Amer
Since I wrote about the Center for Inquiry's Blasphemy Day last week, this is a fitting followup. By participating in events like those, we demonstrate our commitment to defending the right of free speech. But we can also show that commitment in a more tangible way: by taking action on behalf of the prisoners of conscience around the world who've been imprisoned and punished for exercising that right.
In this case, I'm speaking of Kareem Amer, an Egyptian blogger and law student who in 2007 was sentenced to four years in prison for writing posts that criticized Islam and the repressive Egyptian government and defended secularism and women's rights. Naturally, these were judged intolerable crimes in the authoritarian, theocratic dictatorship that modern Egypt has become. Even his own parents disowned him, although this may (or may not) have been the result of coercion.
You can read Kareem's writings for yourself, translated into English, on the site that's been set up to lobby for his freedom. Some of them are astounding in their boldness and courage, especially "There Is No Deity but the Human Being", a ringing endorsement of secular humanism:
Verily, we must return to the beginning and define the function of the law in our lives. And before that, we must convince the human being of his individual sanctity, and that nothing surpasses him in importance and standing besides himself. Following that, the law is a follower, protector, and organizer of his life. It is not a tool of suppression with which whoever is behind it aims to create a new deity the human being will prostrate to and sanctify.
If you're willing to help, the Free Kareem website has an action center with a list of what you can do. As I'm not familiar with the people behind this site, I can't say whether donating money will go to a good cause, so I'd advise some skepticism on that. Instead, of all the actions listed, I think the most effective is sending letters and faxes to the Egyptian government (their link to Amnesty International's webpage for this purpose is broken, so here's a new one).
This may seem like an unlikely way to bring about change in a corrupt theocracy, but Western pressure can have an effect. For instance, Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the Afghan student sentenced to death for the great crime of downloading writings on women's rights from the internet, was pardoned by President Hamid Karzai after heavy international pressure and safely escaped the country.
To support this brave and unjustly imprisoned ally of free speech, writing a letter is the least we can do. This is why we have events like Blasphemy Day, to let oppressive religions and tyrannical governments know that they can't escape criticism no matter how they try. But while blasphemy laws are useless in the long run, in the short run they destroy innocent lives. By taking action on this cause, we have a chance to mitigate at least some of that harm.
Take Action: Defend Marriage Equality in Maine
The last few months have been a rollercoaster ride for advocates of marriage equality in the United States. There was the bitter disappointment of Prop 8 passing in California in the 2008 elections, but soon after, it was assuaged in part by victories for marriage equality in Iowa and Vermont. Soon thereafter, Maine and New Hampshire joined the ranks of the states that offer full civil marriage rights to same-sex couples.
The momentum is unquestionably on our side. Every poll ever conducted has found that support for same-sex marriage commands a decisive majority among the younger generation, and grows nationally year by year. The shrill, hateful bigots who use religion as a justification for taking away other people's human rights, in the long run, are on the losing side of history. There is no doubt that this is true.
But this is no excuse for complacency. Like every successful civil rights movement, we can't sit back and wait for victory to come to us - we have to work for it, we have to earn it. The harder we work, and the more we give to defend a worthy cause, the sooner the day will come when said religious bigots get the comeuppance they so richly deserve, and when gay and lesbian couples get the full legal equality they so richly deserve.
That's why I'm calling on every Daylight Atheism reader to support the cause of marriage equality in Maine. Just like in California, religious fundamentalists have put a question on the ballot - Proposition 1 - which, if approved by voters this November, would overturn the legislature's decision and take away same-sex couples' right to marry. This initiative is principally sponsored and funded by the Roman Catholic Church and the National Organization for Marriage, a homophobic religious-right group.
However, unlike in California, where defenders of marriage equality were unprepared and disorganized, there's every sign this time that the good guys are taking this seriously and have geared up to fight back against the forces of religious hate. Groups like Protect Maine Equality are leading the fight against this unjust and malicious proposal.
But victory is far from assured - with the election just weeks away, polls still show the two sides in a statistical dead heat. There's still a chance for either side to win this. And the cause of equality needs your help!
No matter who you are or where you live, if you're an American citizen, you can help. If you live in or near Maine, you can volunteer. If you don't, you can still donate money. And if you can't afford that, you can talk about it, you can blog about it, you can write letters to the editor or your representatives in office. (These tips for activism courtesy of Greta Christina, who has an eloquent explanation of why this is such a big deal.) Massachusetts, which has had same-sex marriage for years, has the lowest divorce rate in the nation - and falling. Iowans overwhelmingly say that same-sex marriage has made no difference in their lives. These are facts we need to publicize. Stand up, speak out, and make your voice heard!
If we win this fight - if, for the first time ever, same-sex marriage wins in a public referendum - it could be a decisive blow to fundamentalist religious bigots, one that would stop their movement in its tracks once and for all. Maine could be the turning point where we'll one day be able to say, "That's where the tide was turned; that's where the battle for equality was won." But it will only happen if atheists, freethinkers, and people of conscience band together to oppose the grasping, malevolent theocrats who think their religion gives them the right to force us to live by their rules. We can beat them, but we need your help. Volunteer today and do your part!
Take Action: Tell Obama to Prosecute Bush's Torturers
Under pressure from the ACLU, the Obama administration has finally released a set of four Bush-era memos from the White House Office of Legal Counsel. Written by assistant attorney general Jay Bybee and acting assistant attorney general Steven Bradbury, these memos detailed the torture techniques which the Bush administration believed could be used on captured terrorists and terror suspects.
These techniques included "walling" (slamming a prisoner into a wall by swinging them from a collar around their neck), enforced nudity and cold water dousing, shackling in stress positions, sleep deprivation (not to be used "for more than eleven days at a time"), and locking detainees in "confinement boxes" that weren't large enough to stand up in. Worst of all, the memos argue for the permissibility of waterboarding, a well-known torture method used by the Spanish Inquisition, by Nazi Germany, by the Khmer Rouge, and by the Pinochet regime in Chile. That's the kind of company America has been keeping, these past few years.
As an American citizen, when I read these memos, I feel my blood boiling in anger. This was done in our names - sweeping up people from foreign battlefields, imprisoning them for years on end without charges or trial, and eventually releasing them only on condition that they never speak about what was done to them. Worst of all is this - the clinical, lawyerly detachment in these memos, approving torture methods reviled by the civilized world while seeking to bury their evil under dispassionate language. As Andrew Sullivan notes, some of them explicitly adopt the tactics of totalitarianism - tactics that even these memos admit are condemned by the State Department when used by foreign dictatorships, tactics straight out of our darkest dystopias. Here's from Bybee's memo:
"You would like to place Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect. You have informed us that he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular, you would like to tell Zubaydah that you intend to place a stinging insect into the box with him."
And from George Orwell's novel 1984:
"'The worst thing in the world,' said O'Brien, 'varies from individual to individual. It may be burial alive, or death by fire, or by drowning, or by impalement, or fifty other deaths. There are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.'"
President Obama has already issued an executive order banning the future use of these techniques and requiring interrogations to comply with the Army Field Manual, and that's a major step forward, but it doesn't go far enough. Torturing prisoners isn't just unethical or a bad idea: in the United States, it is a federal crime. Those who tortured, and those who ordered torture, committed criminal acts, and it's not good enough to say that there will be no future violations. Justice demands that those who broke the law be held to account; that is the only way to restore our moral standing and make a clean break with the lawless past of the Bush administration.
This moral necessity makes it all the more disappointing that President Obama, upon releasing these memos, also promised that those who followed the advice in them would not be prosecuted. However, short of issuing a presidential pardon, he doesn't truly have the power to make that promise. The ultimate decision lies with Attorney General Eric Holder, whom we know was an advocate for disclosing these OLC memos, and who can appoint a special prosecutor to look into this. We need to apply pressure on him to do the right thing. Firedoglake and the ACLU both have petitions to this end; I've signed them and I strongly urge my American readers to do likewise. If other courses of action come to my attention, I'll update this post.
The major unanswered question, to my mind, is why the Obama administration has so tenaciously resisted the idea of holding Bush's torturers accountable for their crimes. I don't believe they genuinely agree with the doctrines advanced in these memos; if that were so, they would not have released them, or would have done so only with extensive redaction. But if they believed that these actions were unequivocally illegal, they could have started prosecutions already without being pressured to do so.
The explanation that seems most plausible to me is they fear that, if they were to commence prosecutions, it would ignite a bitter partisan battle that would consume the country's attention and sidetrack the rest of President Obama's policy agenda. But if that's their reasoning, I'm still disappointed. First of all, the die-hard remnants of the Republican party are already bitterly opposed to the Obama administration and are, as Rush Limbaugh famously advocated, doing everything they can to make sure he fails. Less than 100 days into the Obama presidency, conservative politicians - not just garden-variety right-wing crazies, but actual elected officials - are talking openly about secession, rebellion, and revolution. The Republican party is a movement wholly in thrall to its most extreme and deranged elements, and they will never cease their effort to obstruct and destroy Obama and the Democrats by any means available. There is nothing to be gained by trying to appease them.
But even more importantly: Even if prosecutions would be controversial, so what? Is serving justice merely one more political goal to be weighed against others? Is lawbreaking to be ignored when punishing it would be inconvenient?
America was created as a nation of laws, not of men. If we allow the well-connected or the politically powerful to violate the law with impunity, that founding guarantee will be rendered null and void. We must uphold justice, whatever the consequences. Nothing else is more important. Now that we know what was done in our name, we must show the world that we will not let it go unpunished. Even more so than with the President or the Attorney General, the decision and the responsibility rests with us, the people. We must speak out, loud and clear, to demand that justice be done.
Atheist Action Items
If we're going to create a world more friendly to reason, we need to raise our voices and speak out for the atheist viewpoint. This week, there are several ways in which you can help:
• Two Texas state legislators have been courageously fighting back against creationism by proposing legislation to increase oversight and disclosure of the creationist-dominated State Board of Education. Take a moment to sign this petition and thank them.
• The city of Ottawa has rejected the pro-atheist bus ads that have been catching London by storm. City Councillor Alex Cullen is moving to repeal this decision at the council's March 11 meeting, and he's asking for people to help out by contacting the rest of Ottawa's city councillors and pressuring them to do the right thing. Tell Ottawa to stand up for atheists' free speech!
Here is a link to the Councillors' contact information:
To make things really easy, reader Marlowe Fillipov has pulled together all their e-mail addresses:
Georges.Bedard@ottawa.ca, Michel.Bellemare@ottawa.ca, Rainer.Bloess@ottawa.ca, Glenn.Brooks@ottawa.ca, email@example.com, Diane.Deans@ottawa.ca, Steve.Desroches@ottawa.ca, Clive.Doucet@ottawa.ca, Eli.El-Chantiry@ottawa.ca, Peggy.Feltmate@ottawa.ca, Jan.Harder@ottawa.ca, Diane.Holmes@ottawa.ca, Peter.Hume@ottawa.ca, Gord.Hunter@ottawa.ca, Rob.Jellett@ottawa.ca, Kitchissippi@ottawa.ca, Jacques.Legendre@ottawa.ca, Maria.Mcrae@ottawa.ca, Bob.Monette@ottawa.ca, Shad.Qadri@ottawa.ca, Doug.Thompson@ottawa.ca, Marianne.Wilkinson@ottawa.ca, Alex.Cullen@ottawa.ca
Please send them an e-mail today.
• Finally, atheists should stand together against religiously motivated, ineffective and dangerous "abstinence-only" sex ed classes in public schools, most of which are just thinly disguised vehicles for Christian proselytizing. The No More Money campaign has been founded to oppose these programs (HT: Marty Klein). Please take action at their site and send a message to President Obama telling him that Americans deserve secular, reality-based sex ed in their public schools.