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!

September 27, 2011, 7:17 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink10 comments
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Tax Breaks for Ignorance

As you doubtless already know, America is suffering through an unprecedented economic disaster. With millions of people jobless and millions of homeowners underwater, the economy is stagnant and its prospects are dim. Which is why, in these hard times, nothing is more important than shoveling more taxpayer dollars into the gaping maw of the fundamentalist carnival sideshow:

A group of private investors and religious organizations is hoping to build a Bible-themed amusement park in Kentucky, complete with a full-size 500-foot-by-75-foot reproduction of Noah's Ark, a Tower of Babel, and other biblical exhibits on a 800-acre campus outside of Williamstown, KY. Their effort got a shot in the arm yesterday when the state approved $43 million in tax breaks for the project.

As the article notes, Kentucky has cut funding to education and Medicaid eight times in the past three years. But, somehow, its government has found room in the budget for a $43 million tax break, a 75% property-tax reduction over 30 years, $200,000 in direct incentives, 100 acres of reduced-price state land, $40 million in sales tax rebates, and $11 million in nearby road improvements, all of which are for the benefit of a creationist "amusement park" whose chief attraction will be a full-size replica of Noah's leaky boat. All this is to complement the "creation museum" which Kentucky already boasts, though I feel dirty even using the word "museum" to describe an institute devoted to the teaching of antiscientific ignorance.

This story is a prime example of something that I first saw pointed out by Sikivu Hutchinson. In economically depressed communities, storefront churches are both a sign of and a contributor to blight: a sign of blight because it means that profit-generating businesses can't get a foothold; a contributor to blight because churches, unlike businesses, pay no taxes and don't help broaden the revenue base. The same is likely to be true of these "creation museums": as soon as their builders have cashed the state's checks, we can expect them to turn around and claim that they're part of a ministry and should be entirely tax-exempt, over and above the massive tax breaks they've already been given.

This project is unlikely to help the state's economy, but it does help right-wing demagogues burnish their theocratic credentials for the benefit of the masses. In today's Republican party, being anti-science is a prerequisite, and dispensing government pork to some loon who claims that the universe is younger than the invention of writing is a solid bullet point on a politician's resumé. That said, I can't pin all the blame on Republicans: Kentucky's Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, also supports the project, which just proves that ignorance and pandering cross party lines.

Nor is it just Kentucky that's rewarding the purveyors of religious lunacy. In Texas (where else?), the state is funneling money to "crisis pregnancy" centers, those anti-choice fronts that typically do their best to look like legitimate family-planning clinics so that they can bombard women who come to them with religious propaganda.

What these stories show is that the Republicans' alleged fiscal conservatism has nothing to do with deficits, and everything to do with wielding the power of the government as a bludgeon to support their regressive, medieval views on science and women's rights. They're dead-set against raising taxes, except when it's raising taxes on abortion and family planning. They're ferociously opposed to more government spending, except when that spending is for the benefit of carnival-barker religious whackjobs or deceitful anti-choicers. They're more than willing to use the government's spending power to advance ignorance and take away choice, just never the other way around.

August 26, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink13 comments
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Dispatches from Future America: Nation Ratifies Reproductive Rights Amendment

[Editor's Note: The last dispatch I received in this ongoing series was particularly bleak. As if on cue, I got another message the other day, this one apparently originating from a very different, and much rosier, future. I get the strong impression that these two possible worlds are, in some manner, competing against each other.]

JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI (August 6, 2037) — The Thirty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified today after passing the Mississippi state legislature by more than the required two-thirds majority, making Mississippi the crucial thirty-eighth state to approve the proposal. The new amendment, which takes effect immediately, defines "the freedom to exercise control over one's own reproductive system" as "an inviolable human right which may not be transgressed by any federal, state or local government or any employee thereof".

Cheering crowds packed the halls of the statehouse where Gov. Jasmine Victoria Meredith symbolically signed the measure into law after its passage by the legislature. "From this day forward, Mississippi's place in history as a champion of women's rights is assured," said the governor. "With these penstrokes, we erase the follies and crimes of the long-gone past - the anti-miscegenation laws, the shameful forced sterilizations, the hostility toward basic rights of reproductive choice - and step into a new era where the fundamental liberties of every human being will be respected and defended."

Advocates of the measure traced the roots of their victory back to the early 2010s. "When the government issued regulations requiring that insurers cover contraception as part of the health-insurance overhaul, it galvanized the feminist movement nationwide," said Feminist Majority Foundation president Amanda Marcotte. "The new generation of politically active women who emerged to defend that move turned out to play a major role in the progressive revolution of the early 2020s."

Among other things, historians credit the revitalized feminist movement with securing the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in 2023. "But in spite of the improvements that brought about, there was ground left uncovered," added Marcotte. "That led to the National Childcare Act of 2026, which required all large employers to offer nine months of paid parental leave, finally bringing the U.S. into parity with the rest of the developed world. Ironically, it was these liberal measures that brought about the dramatic decline in the divorce rate that religious conservatives had so long wished for. When that became obvious, further reforms began to snowball. The most dramatic, of course, was the Congressional approval of a strong, comprehensive sex-ed curriculum for all public schools nationwide, and the effects of that silenced even the most stubborn naysayers. The rate of new HIV infections was already plummeting even before a vaccine was finally approved in 2031."

The newly approved amendment is intended to build on these gains. One of its provisions defines access to safe and effective contraception as a "public good" which the government is obliged to provide. "In most areas of the country, this was a formality," said CNN analyst Athena Jones. "Still, there are a few conservative regions that tried to keep out family-planning clinics with burdensome regulations and regular harassment from protesters. The passage of this amendment should offer a solid ground for a court challenge striking down those laws, as well as providing federal resources for clinic escorts where local officials are unwilling or unable to provide them."

The decision was not without its critics. "This law constitutes grave heresy, the arrogant decision of a godless nation that presumes to place itself above the infallible will of God," said a statement issued by Pope Honorius V. "It is not the place of man to declare that he controls his own body when Holy Mother Church clearly teaches otherwise. All those who voted in defiance of our earlier commandment on this matter are hereby declared to be anathema."

Most political observers expected the papal blast to have no effect. "The last census found that the number of practicing Catholics in America is under 3 million and falling," said CNN's Jones. "The church's membership has been declining for decades, driven by an exodus of young people reacting to Rome's unbending bigotry on the the long-settled issue of same-sex marriage, its ongoing refusal to ordain women despite a crippling shortage of priests, and the continuing fallout from the convictions of top church officials in Poland, India and the Philippines for covering up child molestation. The Vatican has long since rendered itself irrelevant as a political force."

With victory in hand, the backers of the new amendment have vowed to look abroad for their next steps. "Although America has guaranteed its citizens the right to education and sexual freedom, not every country in the world still enjoys those same privileges," said Gov. Meredith. "Despite the dramatic slowing of the global birthrate, we have much work left to do before world population stabilizes at a sustainable level. With the momentum of today's victory, I hope we can prevail upon Congress to do more to expand American support of family-planning and childhood vaccination efforts worldwide. The 1% of GDP we're currently devoting to this problem isn't nearly enough."

August 8, 2011, 5:42 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink77 comments
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The Natural Law Argument Against Procreation

"Nobody has the right to harm others. Yet, homosexuality is a harmful behavior. It is obviously harmful to its practitioners — the clinical evidence for all manner of psychological and physical problems created by acting on homosexual impulses is well established. Homosexuality is destructive to self because it uses the human body in ways that it simple [sic] was not intended to be used by nature and nature's God."

In the above quote, religious-right columnist Tim Dunkin argues that we know homosexuality is immoral because of the physical and psychological harm that it causes. The lasting damage that gay people do to their bodies, he says, is proof that they're misusing them in ways that God never intended.

Well, I think he's onto something. The only thing is, I think he's aiming at the wrong target. There's a practice that indisputably causes far more harm, wreaks far more destruction on human bodies and minds, than homosexuality. That practice is heterosexual procreation, and I hope that sensible, right-thinking Christians across the land will join with me in urging Congress to pass a law banning this wicked and sinful act.

Do you doubt that procreation is against natural law? Well, just consider this evidence.

First of all, there's the hymen. This membrane, which is a completely natural part of women's bodies, covers and protects the vaginal opening - clear evidence of God's benevolent design and his intention not to permit anything to pass through. When the hymen is torn, often during a woman's first act of intercourse, the usual result is pain and blood, which is tangible proof of the harm done by disobeying God's will. Why, some women have to have surgery just to make it possible for them to have sex! What clearer proof could there be that we're misusing our bodies and going against natural law when we do it?

But if a woman disregards God's will and goes on to have sex and become pregnant, worse harm often follows. For one thing, the narrow pelvis of human beings makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for an entire baby to fit through. In developing countries, this causes obstructed labor, which is still a leading cause of maternal death. In advanced countries, godless doctors "solve" this problem with episiotomy or even Caesarean section - major surgery that involves cutting through the abdominal wall! Don't you think that, if giving birth was in accord with God's plan, he would have designed the human body to do it easily and without pain or harm? The fact that women are trying to push babies through a channel which something that size would never normally fit through is clear proof that they're blatantly defying natural law.

Even when the act of giving birth succeeds, severe complications often follow that are destructive to the woman's health. One of the most common is obstetric fistula, a terrible injury that results in incontinence, infections and paralysis. Psychological consequences sometimes follow as well, such as postpartum depression and even postpartum psychosis. And, please note, none of these are occasional add-ons like STDs - they follow directly and intrinsically from childbirth itself! How can the many harmful consequences of procreation not convince you that it's an unnatural and objectively disordered act in plain violation of natural law?

The only solution is to pass a just and sensible law, or better yet a constitutional amendment, banning this immoral practice. Since people can't be trusted to use their bodies responsibly as God intended, we true Christians have no choice but to force them to do the right thing. The Bible itself says clearly that lifelong celibacy is always the better choice, so we know that this law would be correct in God's eyes. What better argument do we need to make it a part of the secular law that's binding on everyone?

August 3, 2011, 5:57 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink47 comments
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Religious Gas-Lighting

By Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

Religionists are those who wish to make religious law the law of the land and impose their personal interpretations of religious law upon others. They come in many flavors, be they Christianists, Islamists, or what have you. The Republican Christianists in the US are a particularly vile sort of religionist.

See, we have a little thing called the First Amendment to the US Constitution, including both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. The First Amendment is a thing of great beauty, and whatever else may be said about the Founding Fathers, they got this point right. The First Amendment to the US Constitution establishes a near-impenetrable wall of separation between religion and state, despite the Republican Christianists’ efforts to tear it down.

So, the Republican Christianists in the US, since they can’t pass through the wall, are forced to scale the wall. They have to make like wolves in sheep’s clothing and disperse themselves amongst the secularists. They have to feign secular purposes for their religious doctrinal commandments, which they would impose upon the American citizenry. They have to pretend that their personal interpretations of religious canon just happen to coincide with moral majority opinion. It’s not that they are trying to impose religious law upon the citizenry. Oh, no. It’s just that moral majority opinion just happens to coincide perfectly with their personal interpretations of religious law.

This is why you will always see an anti-abortion and anti-women advocate begin with sweeping pronouncements about how EVERYONE wants to make abortion rare. EVERYONE wants to reduce the number of abortions to an absolute minimum. EVERYONE hates abortion. EVERYONE thinks abortion is evil.

They don’t want to make women sex slaves and baby incubators, as God demands. Oh, no. They just care so much about the human rights of the unborn babies.

They don’t want to shove their religious doctrine into my uterus. They don’t want to rape me with religious law. Oh, no. They just care so much about the health and safety and wellbeing of women, that they are willing to forego their commitment to small government and a free market and their libertarian principles, in order to spend time with me in my doctor’s office to help me make my own medical decisions.

They don’t want to legalize the sub-human and second-class citizenship status of women. Oh, no. They just want women to make fully informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive choices. They want them to have all of the information.

Or, all of the misinformation.

We can’t let them get away with this anymore. We have to call a spade a spade.

This is also why I would broaden the definition of secularism to preclude the consideration of, not just religious doctrine, but also subjective moral opinions, in the promulgation of secular law. And, think about it. Religious opinion is just another subjective moral opinion. Regardless of the number of adherents.

This is also why I refuse to play their game. This is why I reject the moniker of pro-choice. I am Pro-Abortion and proud. I do NOT want to make abortion rare. I do NOT want to reduce the number of abortions to an absolute minimum. I do NOT regard abortion as a necessary evil or as an evil at all. I do NOT hate abortion. I LOVE abortion. I want to encourage women to have abortions. I think abortion may save our overpopulated, dying world and our species. Abortion is safer than pregnancy. It is almost always in a woman’s best medical interests to abort a pregnancy. If you want to save the world, have an abortion.

I am not going to let them get away with their misinformation campaign. I am not going to let them get away with pretending that the moral majority agrees with them. I am not going to let them spread lies.

We will not be gas-lighted anymore. The best way to counteract the societal effects of cultural gas-lighting? Counter-stories of truth and facts and reason and logic.

I am so incensed by the prevalence of “Pregnancy Crisis Centers”, I can’t even tell you. Why are we letting them get away with this? Why? Why are we letting them masquerade as medical professionals to trick and coerce women out of having abortions? Why are we letting them put women’s health and lives and wellbeing at risk? Why are we letting them advertise under false pretenses and spread potentially harmful medical misinformation? Why are we letting them violate the privacy of private citizens? When the government turns a knowing blind eye to violations of our secular laws, based upon religious doctrine, it perpetrates egregious Establishment Clause violations. The charade is over. The cat is out of the bag. The jig is up. Everyone knows where the white elephant is. The emperor is naked.

To show what an abomination it is to allow these “Pregnancy Crisis Centers” to continue operating as they have been, consider the following scenario:

Jehovah’s Witnesses oppose blood transfusions. Blood is regarded as sacred. Knowingly and willingly giving blood or receiving a blood transfusion is regarded as the gravest of sins against Jehovah God.

Now, the blood supply in the US has actually had a checkered safety record. There have been real concerns, in the past, about the hazards that blood transfusions pose. I am not intending to be an alarmist. I know that every precaution is made to keep the blood supply safe and that transmissions of diseases from blood transfusions are now rare. But, my point is that, compared to abortion, there have been real reasons to be concerned about the safety of blood transfusions on a large scale.

Imagine for a moment that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are the majority Christian sect in the United States. Suppose that they decide to create a slew of non-profits, which they refer to as Blood Crisis Centers, with the goals of dissuading persons from having blood transfusions and of spreading medical misinformation about blood transfusions. Suppose that they employ insidious tactics, such as placing their Blood Crisis Centers near the entrances of hospital emergency rooms, making their Blood Crisis Centers look like medical clinics, and having their staff look and act as if they were medical professionals.

Would we stand for this? Not for one moment.

Would we be confused about the religious motivations of the perpetrators? Not for one second.

Would we allow the perpetrators to feign secular purposes? Are you fucking kidding me?

I find that removing the issue from a context to which we’ve been desensitized, after having been bombarded with religious propaganda and sophistry disguised as secular in nature, and placing the issue in the context of a non-mainstream Christian sect, illuminates the problem as little else can. Therefore, I’ve taken the liberty of employing a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times and changing all instances of abortion to blood.

The following is a parody of a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, which can be found here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/25/opinion/25mon3.html?_r=3

This parody constitutes a ‘fair use’ of this copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law, 17 U.S.C. § 107.

Why Won’t They Say?

In a setback for ill persons facing a particularly vulnerable moment in their lives, a federal judge has temporarily barred New York City from enforcing a new law that would require so-called blood crisis centers masquerading as licensed medical facilities to disclose basic facts about their services.

These centers, run by blood opponents, have sprung up in many places around the country. They typically draw clients with advertisements that appear to promise neutral blood counseling. Staff members in medical attire collect information and perform blood tests and try to convince ill persons not to have a blood transfusion. Ill persons who share personal information are also unaware that the centers are not covered by medical confidentiality rules.

The New York City law would require these centers to disclose in ads and waiting-room signs whether they have a licensed medical provider supervising services and whether they make referrals for blood transfusions. Client information they collect would be subject to confidentiality rules.

The decision by Judge Adam Lee of Federal District Court in Manhattan acknowledges the city’s interest in preventing deception related to time-sensitive health care. The judge still granted a preliminary injunction, mistakenly perceiving a violation of free expression in the law’s modest consumer protections.

The law does not prevent the centers from disseminating their anti-blood message or discriminate against the centers on the basis of their viewpoint. Rather, it requires them to make truthful, factual disclosures about their services. The judge claimed the measure’s description of the facilities it covers is too vague. But the criteria seem adequate to guide enforcement.

As the law stands, medical doctors can be required to convey certain factual information to ill persons to help them make informed choices. Under Judge Lee’s ruling, blood crisis centers pretending to be real medical facilities cannot be made to disclose essential facts about their real services. That makes no sense at all.

August 2, 2011, 5:52 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink62 comments
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6 Ways Atheists Can Band Together to Fight Religious Fundamentalism

This essay was originally published on AlterNet.

If atheists were as politically organized as the religious right, we could accomplish a world of good in combating theocracy and standing up for human rights and secularism. But whenever an atheist political alliance is proposed, the objection is inevitably raised that "atheists don't all agree," and that this would be an insurmountable obstacle to forming a unified political movement.

I believe, however, that this objection overstates the difficulty we would face. In fact, atheists have more in common than most people realize.

It's true that we disagree, and would be expected to disagree, about issues unrelated to atheism. But just by virtue of being a minority, sharing a godless outlook on the world, we tend to see things that non-atheists often overlook - things like the harm done by faith-based zealotry, the undeserved privileges granted to religious people, and the unfounded assumption that religious belief is the only source of morality. And whether we like it or not, we have a common enemy in the theocrats and fundamentalists who want to oppress us, silence us and punish us harshly for the imaginary crime of not sharing their peculiar superstitions. Even if nothing else unites us, this gives us ample reason to band together to defend our rights against the people who are trying to take them away.

There's much historical precedent for this. In trying to organize, we wouldn't be trying to create something completely new or do something that's never been done before. On the contrary, all atheists have to do is follow in the footsteps of the many other successful political movements that have organized to fight for a common cause, despite having a membership that doesn't agree on other issues.

A telling example, as my friend and fellow blogger Greta Christina suggests, is the gay rights movement. Obviously, gay, lesbian and bisexual people don't think alike about everything, and why should they? What do they have in common, after all, other than not being straight? In spite of this, gay rights groups have organized and fought for equality very effectively, and they've brought about a sea change in public opinion. They've won major legal victories such as ending the military's discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy, securing the passage of a federal hate-crimes law, and establishing the right to marry under the laws of six states and the District of Columbia. Anti-gay discrimination has by no means ended, but these are tremendous political victories that would have been unthinkable just one or two decades ago, and large, supportive majorities among the younger generations promise more advances in the near future.

Atheists, who are treated as a despised minority just as gay people were and often still are, should use the success of the gay-rights movement as our template. We don't need to be a political party with a platform specifying what we'd do about every issue -- we just need to reach agreement on the issues we have in common and that affect us the most. And if there are a few oddball atheists who care nothing for equality and don't want to join our effort, or who think that religion should have special privileges and shouldn't be criticized, forget about them. We don't need them. Given that atheists make up as much as 12 percent of the population of America, over 36 million people, a political movement that united even a fraction of us would be a formidable voting bloc.

So what do atheists have in common? What would the agenda of an atheist political movement look like? Here's my modest proposal for the issues we can unite around:

1. Atheists can be good people.

This seems so obvious it's not even worth saying, much less uniting around politically. But it is. Millions of religious people, not just in conservative red states but even in the allegedly liberal regions of the country, hold the prejudiced belief that religion is the only possible means of acquiring morality, the only possible justification for being a good person and treating others with respect and kindness. The inevitable corollary is that being an atheist necessarily means being hate-filled, selfish and untrustworthy. This prejudice is undoubtedly the reason majorities say they wouldn't vote for an atheist candidate for president, even if that atheist was a well-qualified member of their own party.

To counter this myth, we don't need to prove that we're better than everyone else. We don't need to prove that atheists are all incorruptible paragons of virtue. All we need to prove is that atheists, on the whole, are the same as everyone else: not saints, but honest, compassionate, trustworthy people like everyone else. And we can cite abundant evidence: There are atheist doctors, teachers and firefighters. There are active-duty atheist soldiers and atheist veterans. Atheists donate to charity, give blood, join civil rights marches, and help with disaster relief. And we can always point to the amazingly low percentage of atheists among prison inmates (although, admittedly, this may just prove that we're better at getting away with it).

2. Greater support for separation of church and state.

This is a point that atheists from across the political spectrum should agree on, and one that's more than sufficient to build a political movement on by itself. For obvious reasons, atheists don't want to see religious beliefs being used as the basis for law. We don't believe that religion should be outlawed, or that religious people should be banned from preaching their beliefs, but we want the laws and the government to be truly secular; we want that wall of separation between church and state to be reinforced, built up and topped with sandbags and barbed wire. We demand that laws affecting all of us be justified by reasons and evidence that anyone can examine, and not merely by private faith.

Since church-state separation is constantly under assault by theocrats, this issue alone ought to be enough to occupy politically motivated and energized atheists. There are the never-ending efforts to water down science teaching in schools and replace it with creationism and other pseudoscience, some of it by hostile school boards, some of it by teachers who preach in class on their own initiative. There are state, county and city legislatures bent on putting Ten Commandments monuments, crosses and Christian manger scenes on government property, or opening legislative sessions with sectarian prayer. There are government programs that pour money into the coffers of churches, especially the George W. Bush faith-based initiative, which President Obama hasn't reined in despite his campaign promise to do so. And there's the religious language inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance and put on money, which sends a subtle message that atheists are outsiders and second-class citizens.

3. Greater support for free speech.

One of the greatest political concerns for atheists ought to be the advance of hate-speech laws, which punish people for expressing ideas that others deem offensive. In many countries, these laws have been repeatedly used to stifle legitimate criticism of religion. In Spain, for example, an atheist group was forbidden to march during Holy Week; in the Netherlands, the right-wing parliamentarian Geert Wilders was prosecuted for expressing his political ideas; in Italy, Catholic lawyers file defamation suits based on fascist-passed laws that shield the "prestige of the pope" from criticism; in Russia, critics of the Orthodox church are persecuted by the state; in India, the law allows the censorship of any internet content deemed to be "disparaging" to religion. Ireland has gone so far as to resurrect the medieval idea of a law prohibiting blasphemy!

In the United States, the First Amendment is a bulwark against hate-speech laws, but still not a complete defense. Too many colleges and universities, for example, have "speech codes" that don't stop at the legitimate goal of preventing bullying or harassment, but which punish students for constitutionally protected speech if their ideas are deemed offensive, disruptive, or upsetting to others.

Atheists from across the political spectrum should have no trouble understanding why these laws are a terrible idea. Even if written with the best of intentions, rules that ban "disparaging" or "offensive" speech are inevitably perverted and used by hostile majorities to silence unpopular minorities. After all, the very existence of atheists is considered highly offensive by millions of religious people who'd like nothing better than to censor us.

4. Greater support for science and reason.

Atheists should understand, and generally do understand, that irrational and dangerous faith flourishes in societies that don't value evidence and rational thinking. Surveys show that less educated people are more likely to believe in demons, creationism, biblical literalism, and all other kinds of harmful superstitions. And as a growing population strains the bounds of what the Earth can support, as our technology makes us more and more powerful, it's crucial to let science and reason guide us if we're going to thread the needle and avoid disaster. If we don't, as Carl Sagan said, then sooner or later "this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces."

The poisonous effects of irrationality are everywhere to be seen in our politics. Religious right demagogues openly say that climate change can't be happening because God wouldn't let the climate change too much, or that it's futile trying to make peace in the Middle East because Jesus predicted there would be war there until he returns, or that there's no sense conserving natural resources because the world is going to end before we run out. On the other end of the spectrum, the purveyors of fashionable New Age nonsense teach that the way to end war, cure cancer or create a fairer distribution of wealth isn't to implement progressive taxation, march in antiwar rallies or support scientific research, but to sit at home and use our magical powers of wishing to reshape reality to suit our desires.

Atheists have good reason to oppose irrationality in whatever form it rears its head: from religious fundamentalists who try to inject creationism into schools, to anti-vaccine activists who want to get rid of our most effective defense against killer diseases. We ought to advocate a society where science is respected and valued as the most reliable arbiter of truth, where scientists have the funding and the tools needed to do their job, and where politicians take scientific consensus into account; and we ought to act in concert to slap down any purveyor of pseudoscience who tries to claim there are other ways of knowing superior to reason.

5. Support for marriage equality and LGBT rights.

More than anyone else, atheists ought to have sympathy for oppressed minorities whose oppression has historically been justified by appealing to religion, and no group fits that definition better than LGBT people. The arguments against marriage equality and gay rights are purely religious in nature, with no legitimate secular basis. And for the most part, the bigots who make these arguments don't even try to disguise this.

For example, the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, wrote in vain to urge legislators to defeat a marriage-equality bill because he believes that "God has settled the definition of marriage." In Delaware, pastors screamed that a civil-unions law was "biblically incorrect" and "contrary to the will of God."

Left unexplained by all these people is why any group's opinions about God's desires should influence lawmaking in a secular, democratic republic like ours. Should we ban alcohol and coffee because Mormons think they're sinful to consume, or require all women to go veiled in public because Wahhabi Muslims think we should, or outlaw zippers because the Amish reject them? If not, why should Catholic views about marriage be any more relevant?

I grant it's possible that some atheists are anti-gay, even if their position is based on nothing more than a gut feeling of "ick, gay people are gross" (which is more or less the only rationale for homophobia, once you can no longer rely on God's decrees regarding the proper usage of genitalia). But in my experience, the overwhelming majority of atheists do support equal rights for LGBT people, and recognize the religious arguments against homosexuality as the rank bigotry they are.

6. Greater support for reproductive choice.

With this point, I know I'm wading into deeper waters, and I anticipate that agreement won't be as high as with others. Nevertheless, atheists have a very good reason to support strong protection of reproductive choice through comprehensive sex ed, free access to contraception, and the availability of safe, legal abortion.

Many religions, especially the fundamentalist ones that atheists fear the most, demand their followers have as many children as they possibly can. And when religion has the power to make this the law of the land, women and children both suffer. Women are forced to endure the direct risks that pregnancy and childbirth pose to their health and life, whether they want to or not; children suffer from deprivation when their parents have larger families than they can reasonably provide for.

In cultures where women's ability to plan their own families is taken away by theocratic laws, it perpetuates the poverty and dependency that's fertile soil for harmful superstition to grow. If we, as atheists, want to reduce the numbers and the power of aggressive, fundamentalist religion, our course of action is clear: we ought to be  unyielding guardians of a woman's right to make her own reproductive choices.

* * *

I don't expect that every atheist will line up behind all these goals, though I do believe the majority of atheists support them. Nor do I expect that, in every race, there will be a politician willing to take our side on all these issues. For the foreseeable future, we'll probably have to make a lot of hard choices between a bad candidate and a marginally less-bad candidate. But this is mainly because of the excessive influence of the religious right, which has successfully convinced politicians of both parties that the way to win elections is to be as right-wing as possible. The stronger and more influential the atheist movement becomes, the more effectively we can counteract this, and the more we can expand the Overton window on the left to create space for genuinely progressive candidates to get elected.

What I find most encouraging about this list is that the goals uniting atheists aren't supported only by atheists, but ought to be shared by every progressive who supports justice and human rights. This means that atheists should be able to make common cause with other liberal activist groups. There's real potential for a strong, organized atheist movement to give the country a much-needed jolt of progressive energy. This isn't an idealistic or unattainable goal, but one that, if we're willing to work and to organize, lies entirely within our power.

August 1, 2011, 5:48 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink17 comments
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Pro-Family Christians Support Child Kidnapping, Continued

I never thought I'd say this, but I think the Catholic church is actually relieved to be dealing with a scandal that, for once, doesn't involve priests raping children with the protection of their higher-ups. How else to explain their abject contrition over the discovery that, in Australia, they abducted tens of thousands of children born to unwed mothers in Catholic hospitals and gave them up for adoption without consent?

Australia's Roman Catholic Church has issued an apology for its role in the forced adoptions of babies from unmarried mothers during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, a practise that has been described as a "national disgrace".

It is estimated that more than 150,000 young women across Australia had their children taken away at birth without their consent, often never to be seen again.

Women subjected to forced adoptions in Catholic-run hospitals have described being shackled and drugged during labour and prevented from seeing their children being born or holding them afterwards.

..."We acknowledge the pain of separation and loss felt then and felt now by the mothers, fathers, children, families and others involved in the practices of the time," the apology said.

"For this pain we are genuinely sorry."

Like the Magdalene laundries of Ireland, this horror had its roots in Christianity's wicked theology of original sin and human depravity. Doubtless, young unwed mothers were assumed to be sinful, immoral, the "wrong" kind of people; and of course, in the church's eyes, that meant they had no human rights and could be treated like slaves.

What's remarkable is that this practice continued even after society as a whole had become more enlightened. The article mentions that, by this time, Australia offered state-paid benefits to single parents in recognition of the fact that there's more than one kind of family. But even after the country as a whole had recognized that these less-conventional family relationships deserved protection and support, the Catholic church continued to act like a medieval dictatorship, treating women and children as if it was entitled to decide their fates with or without their consent, and splitting up mothers from their babies in the interests of forcing them into the "right" kind of family.

Now that the truth has come to light, the church's tattered moral standing has taken another blow. I said earlier that they were contrite, but maybe I spoke too soon. After all, they're still displaying their usual sense of entitled superiority, acting as if others should bear the burden of compensating the victims of the wrongs they committed:

As well as issuing an apology, the Catholic Church has called on the government [emphasis added] to establish "a fund for remedying established wrongs" and a national programme to help mothers and children who were harmed by the forced separations.

Notably absent from the church's apology is any offer to help identify the people who organized and participated in this act of mass child kidnapping so that they can be prosecuted. Given the time involved, many of them are probably dead by now, but it's an avenue that should at least be pursued. As with the child rape scandal, it appears that the Catholic authorities are willing to make a symbolic show of apology only as long as no actual punishment follows for any of their wrongdoing.

* * *

In other news, there's this cheering story wondering whether the Vatican's relations with Ireland have been permanently damaged. In the wake of the Cloyne report, public anger against the church is at a high-water mark, with some going so far as to hope that the church will follow the News of the World's example and shut down permanently. And the Pope isn't helping, with a stiffnecked response that can best be summarized as "How dare you peasants act so ungrateful after all we've done for you".

Even when the facts of the situation would seem to dictate sackcloth and ashes, the church continues to take the path of defiance, acting as if it's not subject to the laws of the nations in which it resides. Granted, opinions change so slowly inside the Vatican, they may not have realized that this is in fact no longer the case. But, I have to say, I'm very much looking forward to seeing the Irish government and people jolt them into the present!

July 29, 2011, 5:43 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink21 comments
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Dispatches from Future America: Government Increases Budget for Christiancare Program

[Editor's Note: After the two strange messages I received earlier this year, I thought the wormhole, or whatever it was, had closed forever. Evidently not. This past week, as fighting over the debt limit reached a fever pitch, I found a new e-mail from the future in my inbox. Elaborate hoax? Frightening warning of what lies ahead? You be the judge...]

NEW YORK CITY (July 24, 2037) — Mayor Harold Ford Jr., along with a group of civic dignitaries, was on hand for the gala ribbon-cutting of the newest federally-funded Christiancare clinic, the 1000th of its kind to open nationwide. Speeches by respected media figures marked the occasion, looking back on the long political struggle that led to the Christiancare program's creation in the federal budget for fiscal year 2012.

"The 2011 fight over the debt limit nearly destroyed our economy, resulting in skyrocketing interest rates on federal debt, a worldwide stock market crash, a domino chain of collapsing corporations, and near-anarchy as government ran out of money and was forced to shut down all over the country, suspending most basic services," said CNN analyst Stewart Kilgore. "Fortunately, after two months of chaos, President Obama capitulated to the Congressional Republicans' demands by signing a bill that raised the debt limit at the price of completely eliminating Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as repealing the Affordable Care Act and eliminating all income taxes on corporations and individuals whose net worth was $1 billion or higher."

Liberal groups asserted that the controversial budget deal, while it preserved the structure of the American government, was responsible for the 10-year drop in average life expectancy that was noted over the following year. However, conservative groups hailed the deal as a triumph of post-partisan ideology that laid the groundwork for further reform.

"Since President Obama had shown himself to be a sensible and flexible negotiator, the Republicans were able to work with him to enact some common sense follow-ups," said the Sekulow Institute's chief historian, Dr. Michael Marcavage. "For example, the compassionate conservatives of the Tea Party knew that a few people had been slightly inconvenienced by the elimination of the New Deal programs, wasteful and unconstitutional though they were. Since President Obama himself had spoken highly of the great good that faith-based groups can provide with government support and no unnecessary strings, it proved to be a natural next step to return vital community services like medicine and elder care to the institution that had always provided them - the church."

Soon after the budget compromise came a bill establishing the first Christiancare pilot centers, federally funded clinics which "any officially recognized Christian denomination" could apply to run. Once the Supreme Court upheld this controversial law in a closely watched 2015 decision, the floodgates were opened, with the next Congress spending more than $5 billion to expand the program by building over a hundred new centers nationwide. Subsequent expansions of the program folded all other hospitals and clinics into it, as well as making it mandatory for all citizens to visit the nearest Christiancare clinic at least once per year for basic checkups and spiritual counseling.

"It's true that this program experienced some growing pains at first," said the mayor, referring to liberal groups' charges that life expectancy in Massachusetts dropped to 44.5 years after Christian Scientists were given control of Christiancare clinics throughout the state, as well as the sharply increased rates of infant mortality and deaths in childbirth in historically Catholic areas. "But nowadays, who can doubt its success? The skeptics have been silenced, and America's health-care system is the envy of the world! Our federally funded faith healers prescribe millions of baptisms and anointings per year, and cast out demons at rates that other countries can only dream of."

The opening ceremony was nearly overshadowed by news from Washington that further expansions to the controversial program may soon be coming. H.R. 216, sponsored by 238 members of Congress, would require all women in America to be implanted with a microchip that would detect the onset of pregnancy and wirelessly send this information to the nearest Christiancare center for "pastoral prenatal care".

"It will be so convenient, American women will hardly mind the implantation procedure," said Secretary of Health and Human Services Troy Newman. "And rest assured, our trained Christiancare counselors will be fully respectful of their patients' privacy, disclosing the expectant mother's condition only to licensed ministers of the gospel who will be on hand to provide her with the evangelistic material she'll need."

Liberal groups criticized the proposal, but their objections were not deemed newsworthy by the editors of this paper.

July 25, 2011, 5:40 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink9 comments
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The Republican Party Still Hates Women

This week, the House of Representatives voted for HR 3, one of the most vicious and horrendous anti-choice bills ever conceived. This bill revokes all federal tax credits for any health insurance plan that includes abortion coverage - in effect, it raises taxes on private employers who offer insurance to their employees that covers abortion, and even on individuals who purchase health insurance that covers abortion. Republicans, normally fanatic in their anti-tax stance, seem to have no problem with this tax increase. It also codifies the "conscience clause" exception which would arguably allow a doctor or a hospital to let a miscarrying woman die on the waiting room floor rather than perform a lifesaving abortion.

Like most of the other deranged bills passed by the House in this Congress, this one will be blocked in the Senate and has no realistic chance of passage. Nevertheless, it's another chilling glimpse into how far Republicans are willing to go to strip away the rights of women - like the horrible South Dakota bill which requires women seeking abortion to reveal their identities to an evangelical Christian church and then sit through a mandatory session of proselytizing.

The Republican agenda, pursued to the point of obsession, is to load abortion down with increasingly complicated and burdensome restrictions until it's out of the reach of nearly all women. If you ask when it will be restricted enough to satisfy them, the real answer is never, because their real goal is to outlaw abortion, and if they can't do that, their fallback position is to pile up more and more restrictions until it's impossible in practice even if it's theoretically legal. For pro-choice voters, it feels like we're fighting a constant rearguard action, always trying to prevent ground from being lost rather than making gains of our own - for instance, when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, there was no serious effort to repeal the awful Hyde Amendment.

Part of the reason, I think, is that there are too many liberals who treat this as a dispassionate political question - or worse, still assume good faith on the part of the Republicans pushing these policies - and therefore, aren't as vehement in their opposition as they should be. For example, here's Nicholas Kristof, who I usually find very insightful but who has a persistent blind spot of treating his ideological enemies as if they want the same things as him:

"With the best of intentions, pro-life conservatives have taken some positions in reproductive health that actually hurt those whom they are trying to help... liberals and conservatives should be able to agree on steps that prevent unwanted pregnancies and thus reduce the frequency of abortion." [Half the Sky, p.134]

He also describes New Jersey representative Chris Smith, the lead sponsor of HR 3, as "a good man who genuinely care[s]" about women (p.133).

What Kristof doesn't get is that Republicans don't care about reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies. For them, this isn't about outcomes. (They're Kantians, not utilitarians, in that respect.) What matters is to them that they use the law to set forth their vision of an ideal society, and in their ideal society, there are no abortions. What would actually happen to women - forced birth, death from complications of pregnancy, inescapable poverty - is something about which they have no concern. And what's even more disturbing is that, in their ideal society, there's not just no abortion but no contraception.

This isn't widely known, because anti-choice forces are well aware that it would be electoral poison to say so outright. Instead, they've been trying to introduce it gradually, a little at a time, gradually getting voters used to the idea. (See this excellent column by Gail Collins.) We've already seen the contours of their strategy. If they succeed in making abortion unavailable, the next step will be the birth control pill and other hormonal contraception, which conservatives have always wanted to ban based on the junk-science belief that it's equivalent to abortion because it prevents implantation of a fertilized egg (there's no evidence to support this). If they succeed at this, the next step will be IUDs, which will undoubtedly come in for the same treatment. Even I can't guess how they'll demonize condoms or surgical sterilization as equivalent to abortion, but if we reach that point, there's no doubt that they would.

The essential step in stopping this is recognizing the whole sweep of the Republican strategy, which entails recognizing that their endless assaults on choice aren't good-faith disagreements or efforts to protect their own conscience, but attempts to impose a draconian forced-birth policy on all women. If we can see this, and get other people to see this, we'll be able to bring the same passion to the fight that conservatives bring to it.

May 6, 2011, 6:01 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink79 comments
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The Religious Right Hates Women

Last month, I wrote about the awful callousness of Catholic hospitals when a woman arrives needing an emergency abortion. As long as there's a fetal heartbeat, the clergy-run ethics committees of these hospitals often deny doctors permission to operate, even if the woman is hemorrhaging and dying before their eyes. Some doctors end up struggling desperately to keep their patient alive until the fetus dies, so they can operate and save her life. Others send these women to the nearest secular hospital, even if it's far away, because a long, risky ambulance ride gives them a better chance of survival than they'd have at a Catholic hospital.

But, rereading that post, I realize it gave a false impression which I'd like to correct. I unfairly implied that Catholicism is the only Christian sect which views women's lives as worthless and disposable. That was wrong of me, and I thank Republican representative and evangelical Christian Joe Pitts for the reminder:

[C]urrently, all hospitals in America that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding are bound by a 1986 law known as EMTALA to provide emergency care to all comers, regardless of their ability to pay or other factors.

...Pitts' new bill would free hospitals from any abortion requirement under EMTALA, meaning that medical providers who aren't willing to terminate pregnancies wouldn't have to - nor would they have to facilitate a transfer.

HR 358, the bill proposed by Pitts, would make any hospital legally free to do what Catholic bishops want all hospitals to do - categorically refuse to perform abortion under any circumstances, even if there's no other way to save the woman's life. The bill even frees hospitals from the obligation to transfer a woman to a different hospital that will perform them (section 2.g.1.D). If this bill became law, if a woman dying from complications of pregnancy (such as ectopic pregnancy or placental abruption) came to a hospital, they could legally let her hemorrhage to death on the waiting room floor and face no consequences.

Even by the standards of the religious right, this bill is extraordinary in its open and unconcealed hatred for women. We should be used to their normal level of misogyny - like the Republican-controlled House attempting to shut down all private insurance coverage of abortion, or the release of yet more phony, deceptively-edited videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood clinics aiding sex traffickers (noteworthy because Planned Parenthood actually did contact the proper authorities after these visits, not that this stopped the professional liars behind the videos) - but this one stands out even among those. In the past, the religious right has rarely been willing to so explicitly state its belief that women should die, but for whatever reason, they feel less constrained now in voicing their real position.

We would never countenance any other religious group imposing its cruel will in this way. We would never tolerate a Jehovah's Witness hospital that refused to perform transfusions on anyone, even people who arrive at the hospital bleeding to death. But because misogyny is deeply embedded into the structure of nearly all religions, and that prejudice has seeped into our moral opinions, society is somehow more accepting of this when women are the targets.

Well, that prejudice has to be turned back, and this story is a good starting point. This needs to be absolutely clear in everyone's mind: The religious right hates women. When they claim to love women, when they claim to be moral or compassionate, think of this, and remember they firmly believe that women whose lives can be saved should be abandoned to die. They are not loving, they are not compassionate. They think of half their fellow human beings as disposable objects, and behind their smiles and flowery language, there's a heart beating with poison.

February 14, 2011, 6:54 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink133 comments
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