Yes, That's Me in the Burqa

By Sarah Braasch

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

I am an incipient First Amendment lawyer and a staunch church-state separatist. I surpass even my most progressive friends and colleagues in my unflinching and unwavering support of the freedom of speech and expression, including religious expression. I am pretty much the only person I know who hates hate crime legislation as little more than bald-faced thought crime legislation. I am not infrequently verbally vilified for asserting the claim that morality has no place in the law.

And, I support the anticipated public burqa ban in France. And, I would support a public burqa ban in the United States. In fact, I would support a global public burqa ban.

(I will pause briefly for what I am sure are the many gasps of incredulity.)

I am working in Paris, France for a year as an international human rights fellow at Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS). Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives) is a well-known international human rights organization, which advocates unequivocally for women's rights as universal human rights without compromise. They condemn both cultural relativism and obscurantism. They wholeheartedly support the anticipated public burqa ban in France. One of the reasons why I wished to work there is because I wanted to support this effort.

We have been marching and rallying and demonstrating and speaking and speechifying and writing and posting and blogging and publishing up a storm. We marched in front of the National Assembly (their lower house of Parliament) in burqas. We marched in front of the Socialist Party headquarters in burqas. We marched in front of the UMP Party headquarters in burqas. Lubna Al Hussein, the Sudanese journalist who was threatened with 40 lashes of the whip for wearing pants in Khartoum, has embraced the effort while she is visiting France as the guest of NPNS. I have been doing my utmost to spread the word throughout the English-speaking world and especially within the US. Unfortunately, the greater part of the US, including Obama, is woefully misguided on this issue. The US should pay greater attention to the European debate on this subject, instead of dismissing it offhand.

The US needs to hear the message of Ni Putes Ni Soumises. NPNS rose up out of a ferocious grassroots response to the unfathomable violence being perpetrated against the women and girls of the quartiers and cités in the banlieues (the ghettoized suburban housing projects surrounding France's major cities, which are comprised predominantly of marginalized Muslim immigrant communities). Ni Putes Ni Soumises continues to be led by the women of the quartiers from sub-Saharan and North African Muslim immigrant backgrounds. They are not anti-Islam. They claim their religion, and they claim the right to interpret their religion for themselves. They wholly reject the burqa as a barbaric patriarchal cultural tradition that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Islam.

To me, the issue of whether or not the burqa/niqab is mandated by Islam is irrelevant. In fact, in this instance, as far as I am concerned, Islam is irrelevant. We don't make laws based upon whether or not they coincide with Islamic doctrine or scripture or apocrypha or tradition or custom or what have you. We make laws based upon secular principles and concerns and objectives. Likewise, Ni Putes Ni Soumises fights on behalf of secularism, gender equality and gender desegregation as the foundational elements of a truly egalitarian public space, in which all citizens may participate as equals.

The burqa ban should be a non-issue. To me, it's such a simple issue that it's stupid simple. It's ridiculously simple. Of course there should be a ban on identity obscuring face coverings in public. Of course. I don't even think of it as a ban. It's a requirement to reveal one's identity in the public space.

But, before I get ahead of myself, I'm setting some ground rules. I am speaking of the burqa/niqab ban. I am not addressing the hijab or the chador (which do not hide the face). I am not addressing issues of national identity or immigration. I have entirely different takes on those very important issues, but I am not addressing those issues here. I am addressing simply a proposed ban on identity obscuring face coverings in public. I am addressing a proposed ban on public self-effacement, a requirement to reveal one's identity in the public space.

The argument against the burqa ban always takes a very decided path, which I will follow quite plainly here, addressing each concern as I go.

1. A lot of people will be exempt from the ban, so why not Muslim women?

The argument that the person drilling into the sidewalk is wearing a mask, and has been exempted from the ban on face coverings, so everyone else should also be able to walk around in public with identity obscuring face coverings is asinine.

The person in a bright orange vest surrounded by orange traffic cones and yellow caution tape standing next to a dump truck emblazoned with the local municipality's name and operating heavy machinery in the midst of his or her similarly attired co-workers, one of whom is the foreperson who is ready to present his or her official documents of authority for engaging in such activity – an activity that had been publicized in advance in the local press, no doubt, is NOT obscuring his or her identity.

Can we move beyond this point already?

A doctor wearing a mask while performing surgery (or a masked EMT/paramedic or some other similarly masked medical professional) is NOT obscuring his or her identity.

Are you with me yet?

A skier fully decked out in skiing regalia and flying past you on the slopes at a ski resort while wearing a face mask as protection against the biting wind is NOT obscuring his or her identity.

Is this clear already? And, by the way, I grew up in Minnesota, so I understand this point well. The cold winters. Not the skiing.

What's next? Oh, yeah.

2. You just have a problem with banning things.

I'm not sure which nation you happen to reside in or which planet you happen to reside on, but if this is a serious issue for you – "the banning of things" – then you have bigger fish to fry than the burqa. Additionally, I see the burqa ban not so much as a ban, but as a requirement to reveal one's identity in the public space.

3. You see the burqa ban as a limitation on the free exercise of religious faith.

A legitimate government CAN and MAY and MUST be able to tell its citizens what is and is not permissible behavior in public, EVEN IF these laws incidentally encroach upon expressions of religious faith.

The freedom of religious expression is not unlimited. This would result in anarchy. Each and every single law in existence encroaches upon someone's ability to express his or her religious faith. Snake handling? Girl child marriages? Hunting bald eagles? Female genital mutilation? Smoking peyote? Polygamy? Public nudity? Compulsory childhood education? Military draft? Vaccinations? Photo ID's? Taxes? I could go on ad nauseum.

Nowadays, religion is just as likely as not to be defined as an all-encompassing tautology of spiritual mysticism. Whatever that means. It's hard for legislators to come up with laws that don't violate someone's expression of their all-encompassing tautology of spiritual mysticism.

If a law is being enacted for a wholly secular purpose, and it happens to impinge upon someone's religious expression – too bad, so sad. We don't live in a theocracy. We don't make laws, which pay any heed whatsoever to religious doctrine. Thank gods.

The burqa ban is analogous to drivers' licenses and childhood vaccinations. If you don't want to follow the rules, fine, but then you don't get to play. No one is forcing you to play. But, if you want to play the game (i.e. participate in society), you have to follow the rules.

A ban on identity obscuring face coverings in public is not a violation of the Free Exercise Clause. The government turning a knowing blind eye away from egregious human and civil rights violations being perpetrated under cover of religious liberty is a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Batter up.

4. You don't see the issue of the rapidly increasing use of identity obscuring face

coverings in the public space as an issue of public welfare or safety or security or protecting our democracy.

First of all, you're wrong. If I had to write down a recipe for lawlessness, I think I would start by having everyone walk around with black tarps over their heads. There's a reason why burglars and bank robbers and suicide bombers wear masks. If you still fail to grasp this point, I suggest you try an experiment. Try walking into any federal building with a sheet over your head and let me know how that works out for you.

I have a right to know with whom I am interacting in the public space. The public space does not only belong to those citizens who wish to wear the burqa or niqab. The public space belongs to all citizens. It belongs to all persons. Revelation of one's identity is pretty much the most rudimentary step towards participation in society.

A high level of trust is one of the defining attributes of a highly functioning, socially cohesive society. How much trust do you think is engendered by the citizenry walking around with black tarps over their heads?

If you remain unconvinced on the point about security, how about as an issue of protecting our democracy?

It is beyond ludicrous to think that any society can maintain a liberal constitutional democracy with its electorate walking around in public with their identities wholly obscured. You first have to claim your humanity before you can claim your human rights. You first have to claim your citizenship before you can claim your civil rights. This is not possible without claiming one's identity. Identity is power. Why do you think misogynists impose the burqa upon women? To render them powerless.

5. But, it's just a handful of women, you say.

So, doesn't that seem like a good time to nip the problem in the bud? Before it becomes an even more serious issue? And, when has it ever been ok to violate the human rights of just a few persons?

6. But, these women will be sequestered in their homes, because their

husbands and families will not allow them to venture outside without burqas, thereby rendering these women prisoners without contact with the wider society, nor access to public services.

I find this particular argument to be something of a thinly veiled threat. It reeks of the same sort of fear mongering and paternalism that takes place every time women's rights take a step forward. Men will force women to take the pill. Men will treat women like dirty whores, if they can't get them pregnant. Men will force women to have abortions. And, now, when I speak of our need in the US for over the counter abortifacients, I hear the same horror stories: men will force women to take them. Truth be told, in France, when the law against ostentatious religious symbols in public schools was enacted, the same horror stories were recited: the families that demand that their daughters wear hijab will simply pull them out of school. By and large – never happened. But, the French legislators are proposing a burqa ban, which meets the needs of the fear mongering paternalists: the second portion of the French bill includes a severe penalty for forcing a woman to wear a burqa or any garment whatsoever by reason of her gender.

7. But, you're still just incensed, absolutely incensed, about the ostensibly (to you)

unnecessary limitations on the freedom of expression and religion of Muslim women.

Where were you when the massive waves of protests were overwhelming our major cities to protect the right of Native Americans to hunt bald eagles? Where were you when the write in campaigns were flooding the offices of our legislators in Congress to protect the right of Native Americans to smoke peyote?

Oh, that's right. You weren't there. Because that never happened. Because no one cared.

Oh, and as a side note, it seems pretty obvious to me that a handful of Native Americans smoking peyote or handling (not hunting) bald eagle feathers is far less of a public safety issue than identity obscuring face coverings.

But, for some reason, you've decided that you need to take up the cause of the Muslim women who wear the burqa or niqab in Western nations. You are tremendously invested in their ability to express their religious faith, even though you understand that, for the vast majority of Muslim women, the "choice" to don the burqa or no is anything but free.

I would strongly encourage you to search deep within your freedom loving soul to examine the true nature of this stance.

I just find it interesting that no one has any issue with the whole litany of laws, be they federal, state or local, that encroach upon religious expression, but everyone has an ardent opinion on a simple public ban of identity obscuring face coverings, a ban which should be a non-issue.

Why is that?

Could it be because it violates our deeply rooted notions of women as the sexual and reproductive chattel of their families and communities?

I'm just asking.

Or, maybe you're afraid of Muslims.

That's Islamophobia -- treating Muslims as if their hypersensitive feelings have to be endlessly coddled lest they blow something up.

Why don't we treat the Muslim community like intelligent, sophisticated adults who can appreciate the merits of living in a liberal constitutional democracy?

And, just for the record, I'm tired of the suggestions that I'm being played for a fool by the fascist, anti-immigrant Religious Right, as if their tantrums were a good reason to abandon women to misogyny and sex slavery.

Since I'm encouraging soul searching, I want to assure you, dear reader, that I, too, have engaged in some soul searching of my own. I have scoured and examined my motives. I have interrogated my super-ego, my id and my inner child.

I'll admit it: I hate the burqa and the niqab. I hate everything it represents. The oppression of women. The demonization of female sexuality.

But, this, in and of itself, would not be reason enough to restrict a woman's choice to wear it as an expression of her religious faith. And, I do understand that issues of coercion and consent are muddy waters indeed. (I'll save my argument that the liberation of women is a compelling government interest in and of itself for another day.)

But, having turned my (nonexistent) soul inside out, looking for ulterior motives, I am comfortable with my stance on the burqa/niqab ban. The burqa ban is a straightforward issue of public safety and security coupled with democratic representation. The fact that this seemingly benign issue gets so much media and political play is a direct result of our continued and ugly perception of women's bodies as communal property.

And, I mean, think about it for more than one second. Move past the knee jerk reaction.

All of the same arguments could be made both for and against regulations requiring parents to vaccinate their children before enrolling them in public schools. If it is against your religious beliefs to vaccinate your children, fine. Don't vaccinate your kids. No one is forcing you to vaccinate your children. But, then, congratulations! You just won the grand prize of being able to home school your kids, because you don't get to send your unvaccinated kids to public schools. If you don't want to follow the rules, no problem, no one is forcing you to play. Someone could argue that this is an undue burden upon the parents that will disproportionately fall upon the mothers, confining the women to roles as housewives. Someone could argue that this is an unfair constraint upon the children, punishing the kids for their parents' ignorance, further isolating them from the wider society. It is unfortunate, that is true, but these women and these kids are not the only parts of the equation. The other kids, the vaccinated kids, or kids who simply cannot be vaccinated (for health reasons, etc.), should not have to suffer for the sake of someone else's religious beliefs. The argument that some kids cannot be vaccinated for health reasons, so those whose parents harbor religious concerns about vaccination should be exempted as well, is plainly stupid. The goal is to minimize the number of unvaccinated children in the community, so as to increase the potency of the community's herd immunity.

Same scenario removed from the context of women's bodies and female sexuality. Are you shocked by how differently you feel about the subject? You should be.

I support the anticipated public burqa ban in France.

I am reclaiming this discourse, which has been hijacked by the cultural relativists and the obscurantists. I will not be booed out of the theater. I will be heard. Let the name-calling commence.

I am not afraid of you.

May 12, 2010, 11:48 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink182 comments

The Catholic Church Embraces Reform?

Since I've written a fair amount lately about the child-rape scandal engulfing the Catholic church, it would be unfair of me to overlook any steps they've taken toward reform. Well, you all know I'm nothing if not fair, so I have to report on this tiny, hesitant step:

Last week, the Vatican for the first time issued guidelines telling bishops they should report cases of abusive priests to police where civil laws require it.

Marvelous! At long last, the Vatican has bravely decided that its employees should report criminals to the police to prevent them from committing more crimes. How stirring! How inspiring! Give them a medal for heroism!

Seriously, while it's good that they've done this, it's not an accomplishment worth praising them for; it's literally the bare minimum. Let's be very clear that a step as astoundingly obvious as this - as announcing that Roman Catholic bishops will henceforth actually obey the law, rather than aiding and abetting child molesters - wasn't official church policy until April 2010. Yes, yes, the Vatican has insisted that this was its unwritten policy all along. That perfunctory assertion is hard to believe in view of the fact that there was apparently unanimous agreement among the bishops to keep these cases covered up. I'm not aware of a single case from the last five or six decades where a bishop who was informed of a predator priest went to the police. Instead, for the most part, they dealt with it by shuffling problem priests around so that they could abuse more children in new parishes.

And that's the real reason I'm not satisfied here. Yes, fine, the church has generously agreed to start turning in child molesters (as if they could have said anything else). What they notably haven't done is institute any kind of accountability or punishment for the bishops and cardinals who protected, aided and abetted those child molesters. That's no surprise, really, since the current pope is one of them.

But that's the real scandal here - not the relatively small percentage of predator priests, but the huge percentage of bishops who helped cover up their crimes and enabled them to continue abusing children. And it's clear that the church authorities haven't come to terms with their own culpability in this. One Irish bishop has resigned after being cited in an Irish government report on abuse in Catholic schools, and a Belgian bishop resigned after admitting that he himself abused a child (!), but nothing has been done about the many others, like the despicable Cardinal Bernard Law, who haven't stepped down voluntarily.

And if you want more evidence that the church has learned nothing, take this case in New Jersey. The church higher-ups are still fighting tooth and nail against statute-of-limitations reform and other legal measures that would let the victims have their day in court. (Read the link, it's quite astonishing - the church filed an amicus brief in a case it wasn't even directly involved in, arguing that non-profit organizations should be immune from liability even if their employees acted criminally to protect child molesters.)

Efforts like this show that the church's reforms are, at best, cosmetic. When faced with a tidal wave of bad publicity for actions no sane person would defend, they'll condescend to apologize - but only on their own way and in their own terms, and with the proviso that there be no punishment for anyone who did anything. Just as in the earlier child-abuse cases, they're more concerned with protecting their own assets and reputation than making any meaningful effort to repair the damage they've caused. And why should they do otherwise? Whatever hits their reputation has suffered, the scandal hasn't hurt their finances, according to this article:

After hundreds of incidents of priests sexually abusing their parishioners were disclosed in 2002 in the U.S., fundraising by bishops and parishes went up, said Harris, the author of "The Cost of Catholic Parishes and Schools," published in 1996 by Sheed & Ward.

..."Parish giving wasn't affected by the earlier scandal and I expect the same pattern to hold here," said Charles Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

The biggest obstacle standing in the way of real reform is that there are still millions of Catholic loyalists who support the church financially, regardless of what crimes it commits. They may even give slightly more in times of crisis, due to a circle-the-wagons mentality. As long as the church is being sustained by this steady stream of cash, it has no incentive to change its ways, and probably won't.

However, I'm not as pessimistic as that article would imply. As is usually true with religion, I think change comes about generationally. Younger people who aren't as set in their ways are seeing the crimes of the church and are turning away from it. This may not have a large immediate impact, but the biggest effect of this scandal isn't going to be in the present; it's going to be some years down the line, as elderly Catholic faithful die off and aren't replaced. We already know the church is fading, and this crisis can only accelerate its decline.

May 3, 2010, 5:54 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink18 comments

Beware of Pastors Bearing Gifts

Late last year, an evangelical Christian pastor in Brooklyn announced that he had secured a major grant totaling millions of dollars from the massive evangelical charity World Vision. The pastor, Isidro Bolaños, promised to use this money to hire people from the community to do faith-based social work:

Mr. Bolaños, pastor of the Christian Church of El Dios Vivo, has reassured employees that the enterprise, called Community Project, Brooklyn Pilot Program, is ready to send them into neighborhoods to provide services to families, young people, addicts and the elderly from offices at the Brooklyn Army Terminal.

As you might have expected in these troubled economic times, hundreds of people flocked to job interviews and informational sessions. Most of these took place as part of religious services held at Pentecostal churches run by Bolaños and his associates. As is usual at a church service, the collection plate was passed among these eager hopefuls; some were even asked to bring food for everyone. But the attendees, many of whom were told they were hired on the spot, were in high spirits. Bolaños collected their personal information, such as Social Security numbers and copies of driver's licenses, and told them that his mission would officially open soon in a renovated space in the Brooklyn Army Terminal.

But several promised deadlines for the project kickoff - January 1, then March 1, then March 31 - came and went with no word. When a reporter went to check, he found that the city agency that owns and rents the terminal had never heard of Bolaños and his project, and World Vision denied having awarded any such grant. When Bolaños was reached by phone and asked to explain these facts, he hung up on the interviewer.

Despite these disclosures, Bolaños continued to insist that the project launch was imminent. At his sermons, which now allowed only pre-screened applicants, he blamed the delays on Satan trying to stall the project. He urged his hires not to lose faith, even encouraging them to borrow money if they had to in order to hang on in the New York area while waiting for their first paycheck. He denied ever mentioning World Vision and said that the project's backer was the "American Holding Charities Group", whose existence no outside observer has been able to confirm. He promised that April 5 would be the new start date, which passed with no word. And finally, last week, Bolaños disappeared altogether. An associate said that he had left for Nicaragua on a "missionary trip" and would return in a few weeks.

At this point, I'll be surprised if Bolaños ever returns. This story has all the hallmarks of the advance-fee fraud used so successfully by Nigerian con artists, and he probably realized that the law was starting to take an interest. The only question I still have is what he hoped to gain from this scheme. Did he make that much just from passing the collection plate among his flock? More likely, he had something else in mind. After all, if there was never any grant or any jobs program, what was he collecting people's personal information for? It seems likely that this information will end up in the hands of identity thieves, who'd probably be all too happy to pay for it.

But what's perfectly clear is that Bolaños was able to pull off this scam by exploiting the unquestioning trust that believers have in religious leaders, as well as the Christian teaching that miracles will be granted to those who persevere in faith. Both of these teachings make it much easier for con artists and hucksters to evade scrutiny:

"We never doubted, because since he was a minister, we never thought he would lie to another minister," said that member, the Rev. Gonzalo Rodriguez, who has served as secretary to an executive council of pastors Mr. Bolaños assembled.

Rev. Dale T. Irvin, president of New York Theological Seminary, said those incidents point to a vulnerability that has long endangered these small, independent churches.
"What makes the people vulnerable are their hopes for a miracle," he said. "They are hoping a pastor will come and rescue them."

Stories like these are exactly why the New Atheists call on society to tear down the abnormally thick wall of respect afforded to religion. Of course there are secular versions of this scam, but religion is unique in having built-in mechanisms to discourage doubt and questioning, which con artists can all too easily use to their advantage as long as they know the right code words. If more people were willing to apply skepticism and critical thinking to religious claims, scams such as this would be much harder to get away with. And conversely, whatever measures local ministers take to help those who've been taken in by Bolaños, their efforts will be for naught as long as they keep teaching their congregations that they must have faith in the unseen - because that core religious teaching is what enables these scams to flourish in the first place.

April 26, 2010, 1:34 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink18 comments

Demanding the Right to Discriminate

The Supreme Court heard arguments recently in a case out of California, in which a Christian student group at a public law school sued because they were denied recognition and funding by the school. The reason for this denial is that the school requires student groups to be open to all members, and the Christian Legal Society wants to ban - you'll never see it coming - people who are guilty of "unrepentant participation in or advocacy of a sexually immoral lifestyle". That means gays and gays alone, of course, since being gay is the only sin that Christians care about now. The Bible also prohibits divorce quite clearly [Matthew 19:6], but I've heard no allegation that this group seeks to exclude people who are "unrepentantly guilty" of having gotten divorced.

Some of the arguments before the Supreme Court verged on the comic, such as this exchange:

"Are you suggesting that if a group wanted to exclude all black people, all women, all handicapped persons, whatever other form of discrimination a group wants to practice, that a school has to accept that group and recognize it, give it funds and otherwise lend it space?" asked Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

No, McConnell said. "The stipulation is that they may not exclude based on status or beliefs. We have only challenged the beliefs, not status. Race, any other status basis, Hastings is able to enforce."

"What if the belief is that African Americans are inferior?" Justice John Paul Stevens said.

"Again, I think they can discriminate on the basis of belief, but not on the basis of status," McConnell said.

So apparently, a student group would not be able to outright bar black people, but would be able to bar black people who refuse to sign a sworn statement declaring their belief in the racial inferiority of black people. Totally different! Thanks for clearing that up.

The Christian group's lawsuit claimed that their constitutional rights of free association and free speech are being denied, which is an obvious falsehood. No one's freedom of association is being denied; the Christian group, or any other group, can select its membership based on any criteria they like. The issue is whether the school, which as a public institution is an arm of the government, must subsidize that discrimination by giving official recognition and funding to such a group. This question should have been settled long ago, but while the CLS isn't seeking to overturn civil-rights laws, it obviously wants to carve out an exception permitting them to practice anti-gay bigotry with state support as long as it's founded on religious belief (as if racism of past eras was not also justified with religion).

Sadly, this revolting argument isn't an American aberration. On the other side of the pond, Christian fundamentalists in the U.K. (yes, they do exist!) are making exactly the same argument:

A top judge was warned that court rulings against Christian workers risk causing "civil unrest" as he heard the case of a relationship counsellor who was sacked after refusing to give sex advice to homosexual couples. Gary McFarlane's barrister said that laws banning discrimination had taken precedence over religious freedoms.

...Christian leaders are particularly concerned by a ruling by Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls on behalf of the Court of Appeal. Lillian Ladele, a registrar who refused to conduct civil partnerships because they were against her beliefs, was deemed to have broken the law and could no longer work as a registrar.

They claim that the ruling meant that the right to express the Christian faith must take second place to the rights of homosexuals.

That last sentence could be more accurately written as follows: "They claim that the ruling meant that the right of Christians to be bigots must take second place to the rights of homosexuals to be free of bigotry."

After all this time, Christian fundamentalists are still committing the same fallacy I pointed out in one of my very first posts: the erroneous belief that their free exercise rights have been violated if they haven't been accommodated in any way they demand. They've very successfully managed to remain ignorant of the fact that having freedom of religion means, if you have religious objections to performing the duties of a job, then you're free to not take that job. There are plenty of positions where you're not required to serve the public, if these people find the idea of rendering service to a gay person so utterly unthinkable.

But no. They seek the right not just to express their opinions as private citizens, but to carry those opinions over into the performance of their official duties and decide who they will or will not serve based on whom their religious beliefs tell them to hate. What next? Christian doctors who won't treat gay people because they believe God is punishing them with plagues? Christian firefighters who refuse to extinguish a burning house if a gay couple lives there? Christian policemen who refuse to arrest a person who assaults or murders a gay man? Where does it stop?

What these loathsome fundamentalists really want is to make up their own laws based on their personal religious beliefs. And once we allow them to do that in even one area - once we accept that religious beliefs ever trump the equal protection of the law - there's no consistent place where this principle should end. The only rational thing to do is to draw the line right at the beginning, and declare that bigotry and hate are never valid reasons for treating people unequally - the same argument that's already accepted in the case of race and gender. There's every reason to believe that the day is rapidly approaching when the Christians who seek to safeguard their own right to discriminate will be considered just as reprehensible as the bigots of past eras who fought equal rights for women and black people.

April 23, 2010, 5:40 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink25 comments

Victory for FFRF!

I wrote in 2007 about the National Day of Prayer, a ridiculous ceremony created by Congress in the 1950s to urge all Americans to pray. That obviously unconstitutional objective would be bad enough, but what makes it even worse is that official National Day of Prayer events, held in city halls and government offices across the nation, are overrun by evangelical religious-right groups who claim the day as their own and don't allow members of the "wrong" religions to participate.

Well, I'm thrilled to say that freethinkers and secularists have won a tremendous victory against this blatantly illegal government-sponsored religious exercise. The Freedom from Religion Foundation has won summary judgment in a district court over their lawsuit, filed in October 2008, which seeks to bar the federal government from recognizing the National Day of Prayer.

Judge Barbara Crabb wrote a 66-page decision that lays out the history of the National Day of Prayer, exhaustively considers the precedents, and makes a clear, thorough and compelling argument for why this event is a complete violation of the constraints placed on the government by the First Amendment. The ruling is available online, and I'll quote a few of the choicer parts:

However, recognizing the importance of prayer to many people does not mean that the government may enact a statute in support of it, any more than the government may encourage citizens to fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge or practice rune magic. [p.4-5]

[R]eligious expression by the government that is inspirational and comforting to a believer may seem exclusionary or even threatening to someone who does not share those beliefs. This is not simply a matter of being "too sensitive" or wanting to suppress the religious expression of others. Rather, as explained in a recent book by the Provost of Princeton University and the Dean of the University of Texas School of Law, it is a consequence of the unique danger that religious conduct by the government poses for creating "in" groups and "out" groups.... [p.19]

If the government were interested only in acknowledging the role of religion in America, it could have designated a
"National Day of Religious Freedom" rather than promote a particular religious practice. [p.34]

The same law that prohibits the government from declaring a National Day of Prayer also prohibits it from declaring a National Day of Blasphemy. [p.64]

The opinion also takes a few well-deserved swipes at the excuses that some judges have devised to sneak state-sponsored religion in through the back door:

Establishment clause values would be significantly eroded if the government could promote any longstanding religious practice of the majority under the guise of "acknowledgment." [p.33]

and especially:

One judge [that would be Judge Reinhardt, who ruled for Michael Newdow in the Pledge case —Ebonmuse] observed recently that ceremonial deism is a "hazily defined" concept and suggested that it "represents mainly the judiciary's less than courageous response" to certain longstanding religious practices. [p.44]

Crabb's decision explained something I didn't know - that the National Day of Prayer was proposed by conservative congressmen (including Absalom Robertson, Pat Robertson's father) to an evangelistic revival held in Washington, D.C. by Billy Graham which called upon the government to be more Christian. She quotes from Graham's speech to show how openly partisan and sectarian his intent was:

We have dropped our pilot, the Lord Jesus Christ, and are sailing blindly on without divine chart or compass, hoping somehow to find our desired haven. We have certain leaders who are rank materialists; they do not recognize God nor care for Him [sic]... Ladies and gentlemen, I warn you, if this state of affairs continues, the end of the course is national shipwreck and ruin. [p.6]

Graham, of course, is a private citizen and is welcome to hold the opinion that our leaders should be Jesus believers or engage in prayer - but it is not the role of the government itself to back him up. It is not the role of the government to tell people to "recognize" or "care for" one particular set of god-beliefs, nor is it any of the government's business to tell us how, when, or whether to pray. Thomas Jefferson explained why when he wisely refused to issue religious proclamations as President:

I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting and prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them, an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands where the Constitution has deposited it... every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States, and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

This is just the first step, of course; this ruling is all but certain to go to an appeals court. Even if it survives the first round of appeals, it's very likely to wind up before the Supreme Court, and there's no telling how they'll rule. Nevertheless, this is a major victory, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation deserves tremendous credit for taking on this case and fighting it out in court. If you're an atheist and you're not an FFRF member, why on earth aren't you?

April 17, 2010, 9:23 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink24 comments

Britain, Fix Your Libel Laws!

Legal observers have noted for some time that the laws governing defamation in the United Kingdom are far more plaintiff-friendly than similar laws in the U.S. In the U.S., anyone claiming they were libeled has to prove that the allegedly libelous statements were false. But in the U.K., the burden of proof is reversed: the defendant in a libel suit has to prove that the statements they made were true. This creates a serious hazard to free speech: rich, litigious individuals can file lawsuits and win just by prolonging the court battle until the other side runs out of money to fight, at which point they instantly lose - and then must pay damages and court costs.

This is precisely the strategy that thin-skinned billionaires and powerful business interests, many of them not even based in the U.K., have been using to shut down anyone who criticizes them. It's become so common, it's acquired a name: "libel tourism". Most infamously, the Saudi businessman Khalid bin Mahfouz sued journalist Rachel Ehrenfeld in the U.K. courts for her book Funding Evil, which alleged that bin Mahfouz financially supported Muslim terrorist groups - this even though Ehrenfeld doesn't live in the U.K. and her book wasn't published there. Another example is the case of Simon Singh, a science journalist who wrote an editorial saying that there was no evidence for the effectiveness of chiropractic - and was promptly sued by the British Chiropractic Association. That case is still ongoing and has already cost Singh tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours defending himself.

And now, the U.K.'s libel laws are being invoked yet again in what promises to be their most outrageous and absurd application so far. Atheists might have guessed that this was coming:

A Saudi Arabian lawyer has threatened to use British courts to overturn a Danish free speech ruling by bringing a defamation case over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that depicted Islam's founder as a terrorist.

Faisal Yamani, a Jeddah based lawyer, is planning to take a case to London's libel courts on behalf of over 90,000 descendants of Mohammed who have claimed that the drawings have defamed them and the Islamic faith.

...Mr Yamani demanded last year that 11 Danish newspapers remove all cartoon images of Mohammed from their websites and issue front page apologies along with promises that the images would never be printed again.

Yes, it's those Danish cartoons of Mohammed again. Five years after they were first published, the Muslim world just can't move on, and is still demanding that someone, anyone, must be made to pay for their hurt feelings. From angry mobs in the streets and ax attacks on cartoonists, to libel lawsuits and pushing defamation resolutions at the U.N., it's clear there's nothing they won't try to censor and intimidate anyone who criticizes them in any way at all.

But even under the U.K.'s plaintiff-friendly defamation laws, this suit looks even less meritorious than its predecessors. First of all, on what basis does anyone assert the right to sue on Mohammed's behalf? Can a many-centuries-dead person be libeled? And what "factual statement" was made by these drawings that the plaintiffs claim to be defamatory?

But whatever legal issues are raised by this lawsuit, the question of its merit is irrelevant. Like all libel tourism, its purpose isn't to prevail on the merits, but to intimidate and harass media organizations with protracted, expensive litigation and the threat of a catastrophic judgment, thus chilling their speech and making them afraid to offend any deep-pocketed individual. Whether it's pseudoscience groups protecting their cash cow from scientists' criticism or the perpetually aggrieved Muslim mob and their petulant demand that no one be allowed to express any opinion they disapprove of, the strategy is the same, and the result is too often the same as well.

America has this problem too of course, with so-called SLAPP lawsuits - but in our system, with the burden of proof the right way round, it's much more difficult for cults and corporations to succeed in silencing their critics. Britain's libel laws, on the other hand, are far too easily abused by those who flee from criticism and avoid open debate - but eagerly use thuggery and coercion to shut down their opposition if given the chance.

Fortunately, the U.K. has seen the rise of a broad coalition seeking to overhaul the libel tourism laws and put the country back on a more rational footing. But too much damage has already been done, and more is being done, so reform can't come soon enough. If you live in Great Britain, contact your MP and tell them to support this effort! We need to take action before any more scientists, atheists or freethinkers are silenced by the allies of corruption, censorship and superstition.

March 17, 2010, 6:00 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink29 comments

The Case for a Creator: ID on Trial

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 8

The best place to settle a scientific debate is in the peer-reviewed journals and the larger research community - a strategy which, as we've noted, the creationists have steered well clear of. This means, when they inevitably attempt to push their beliefs into public schools anyway, that we have to take them to court, and that's where most direct encounters between science and creationism take place.

However, though it's not an ideal forum for the advancement of scientific knowledge, the trial format does have its advantages. For one thing, we can cross-examine creationist witnesses and force them to answer direct questions - an opportunity not available on the internet, where they can hunker down behind the ramparts of their blogs and avoid all hostile or critical feedback. And when they've been put to the test in this way, they haven't come out of the experience covered in glory.

In chapter 8, Lee Strobel gives Michael Behe the opportunity to repeatedly make assertions like this one:

"Complex biological systems have yet to be explained by naturalistic means. That's a fact." [p.216]

In the cozy environment of Strobel's interview, this claim meets with no skepticism. Not a hint is given that evolutionary biologists have made any progress in explaining the origin of any complex biological system. But on another occasion, Behe had to defend these views in a considerably less friendly forum, and he didn't fare nearly as well.

In 2004, the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania voted to include references to intelligent design in their biology curriculum. The ensuing lawsuit, Kitzmiller v. Dover, became a landmark in the evolution wars - not least because several prominent creationists agreed to appear as witnesses for the defense, among them Michael Behe.

The Talk.Origins Archive has complete trial transcripts, which you can read through if you want. However, I want to highlight an exchange from day 12, when Behe was cross-examined by Eric Rothschild, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. Behe had claimed in his testimony that "the scientific literature has no detailed testable answers to the question of how the immune system could have arisen by random mutation and natural selection".

Even compared to all the other falsehoods told by Behe, this stands out as his wrongest claim yet. The origin of the immune system has been a topic of active research for decades, and we've made enormous strides in our understanding of how it evolved. The key hypothesis, called the transposon hypothesis, makes several surprising predictions that have been verified by subsequent work. This seemed the ideal point to attack Behe when he took the witness stand, which led to this exchange:

Q. I'm going to read some titles here. We have Evolution of Immune Reactions by Sima and Vetvicka, are you familiar with that?

A. No, I'm not.

Q. Origin and Evolution of the Vertebrate Immune System, by Pasquier. Evolution and Vertebrate Immunity, by Kelso. The Primordial Vrm System and the Evolution of Vertebrate Immunity, by Stewart. The Phylogenesis of Immune Functions, by Warr. The Evolutionary Mechanisms of Defense Reactions, by Vetvicka. Immunity and Evolution, Marchalonias. Immunology of Animals, by Vetvicka. You need some room here. Can you confirm these are books about the evolution of the immune system?

A. Most of them have evolution or related words in the title, so I can confirm that, but what I strongly doubt is that any of these address the question in a rigorous detailed fashion of how the immune system or irreducibly complex components of it could have arisen by random mutation and natural selection.

...Q. There's also books on the immune system that have chapters on the evolution of the immune system?

A. Yes, and my same comment would apply to those.

Q. I'm just going to read these titles, it sounds like you don't even need to look at them?

A. Please do go ahead and read them.

Q. You've got Immune System Accessory Cells, Fornusek and Vetvicka, and that's got a chapter called "Evolution of Immune Sensory Functions." You've got a book called The Natural History of the Major Histocompatability Complex, that's part of the immune system, correct?

A. Yes.

Q. And here we've got chapter called "Evolution." Then we've got Fundamental Immunology, a chapter on the evolution of the immune system.

A lot of writing, huh?

A. Well, these books do seem to have the titles that you said, and I'm sure they have the chapters in them that you mentioned as well, but again I am quite skeptical, although I haven't read them, that in fact they present detailed rigorous models for the evolution of the immune system by random mutation and natural selection.

Q. You haven't read those chapters?

A. No, I haven't.

Q. You haven't read the books that I gave you?

A. No, I haven't. I have read those papers that I presented though yesterday on the immune system.

Q. And the fifty-eight articles, some yes, some no?

A. Well, the nice thing about science is that oftentimes when you read the latest articles, or a sampling of the latest articles, they certainly include earlier results. So you get up to speed pretty quickly. You don't have to go back and read every article on a particular topic for the last fifty years or so.

Q. And all of these materials I gave you and, you know, those, including those you've read, none of them in your view meet the standard you set for literature on the evolution of the immune system? No scientific literature has no answers to the question of the origin of the immune system?

A. Again in the context of that chapter, I meant no answers, no detailed rigorous answers to the question of how the immune system could arise by random mutation and natural selection, and yes, in my, in the reading I have done I have not found any such studies.

The list of books and papers that Rothschild piled up on the witness stand, as you can see from the photograph, is extensive, and Behe admitted that he hadn't read any of them. Yet despite this, he continued to insist that it was not possible that any of them contained an explanation good enough to satisfy him. If you want to see the list for yourself, the NCSE has an annotated bibliography - listing all the titles and excerpting their subject matter, to show how they directly address the origin of the immune system - the kind of detailed, testable scientific hypothesis that, according to Behe, does not exist. (See also Evolving Immunity.)

After forty days and forty nights of testimony (really), the Kitzmiller trial concluded, and Judge John E. Jones - a conservative George W. Bush appointee - issued a strongly worded decision which concluded that ID was religion, not science, and that teaching it in public school would be an unconstitutional state endorsement of religion. Behe's testimony was singled out for criticism, as Judge Jones wrote: Darwin’s Black Box, Professor Behe wrote that not only were there no natural explanations for the immune system at the time, but that natural explanations were impossible regarding its origin. However, Dr. Miller presented peer-reviewed studies refuting Professor Behe’s claim that the immune system was irreducibly complex. Between 1996 and 2002, various studies confirmed each element of the evolutionary hypothesis explaining the origin of the immune system. In fact, on cross-examination, Professor Behe was questioned concerning his 1996 claim that science would never find an evolutionary explanation for the immune system. He was presented with fiftyeight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not “good enough.”

Christian apologists like Lee Strobel go out of their way to present ID advocates in the best possible light, asking them easy, leading questions and ensuring that their answers go uncriticized and unchallenged. But in an open environment where they don't control the terms of the debate and must confront the evidence, creationists meet with disaster time and time again. Is it any wonder that scientists have little regard for ID advocates, considering that their major arguments, like fragile hothouse flowers, must be carefully shielded from contact with the evidence lest they collapse?

Other posts in this series:

February 15, 2010, 9:17 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink23 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

I'm happy to report that there's quite a lot of good news this week:

• The U.K. government recommends that primary school religious education classes should teach about "secular beliefs such as humanism and atheism", in addition to learning about major world religions like Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. This is just one more symptom of how far ahead of us our European friends are in some respects - can you imagine the religious right frenzy that would ensue if a U.S. politician recommended teaching about atheism in public high schools?

• In a story that made me especially happy, Andrew Wakefield, the pseudoscientific doctor who's almost single-handedly responsible for the anti-vaccination movement, was found to have seriously abused his trust as a medical practitioner by a U.K. ethics panel. According to the ruling, Wakefield ordered unnecessary and invasive tests on autistic children (including spinal taps and colonoscopies), without securing proper ethical approval, in the paper that claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. He also failed to disclose major conflicts of interest (he was being paid by trial lawyers looking to file claims against vaccine manufacturers). The General Medical Council ruled that Wakefield was "dishonest, irresponsible and showed callous disregard for the distress and pain" of the children, and is still evaluating a charge of professional misconduct that could lead to Wakefield's losing his license to practice medicine.

• And lastly, I'm glad to report that Scott Roeder, the Christian terrorist who shot and killed Dr. George Tiller, was convicted of first-degree murder by a Kansas jury this week. The judge rejected the defense's ludicrous request that the jury be allowed to consider voluntary manslaughter, and they returned the verdict after just 37 minutes of deliberation. Roeder faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison, the most fitting punishment for a cold-blooded and vicious killer like himself.

Although the cause of justice was served, this verdict can't undo the damage; Dr. Tiller's clinic will be closing for good, which means in a way that Roeder got exactly what he wanted. Still, the verdict sends a message that anti-choice zealots cannot commit these crimes with impunity. It may not be enough to discourage future acts of terrorism against abortion providers, but at least we have assurance that the rule of law is still operative in America.

January 30, 2010, 11:00 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink5 comments

Free Speech Still Threatened in Europe

Scarcely two days into 2010, we've gotten a stark reminder of how free speech is still threatened by religious fanatics: Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who drew the image of Mohammed depicted to the right, was attacked at home Friday night by a murderous, ax-wielding religious fanatic. Fortunately, neither Westergaard nor his 5-year-old granddaughter, who was with him at the time, were harmed. They escaped to a panic room built into the house for just this purpose and summoned police, who shot and wounded the attacker when he refused to surrender.

This isn't the first time Westergaard's life has been threatened by crazed Muslims. As I reported previously, he's been the target of multiple death threats since the Mohammed cartoons were first published in 2005, and in 2008, three other men were arrested by Danish police and charged with plotting his murder.

In an October interview with the conservative National Post (which notes ruefully that Westergaard isn't much of a fan of Christianity, either), the artist was unrepentant:

"As I see it, many of the immigrants who came to Denmark, they had nothing. We gave them everything - money, apartments, their own schools, free university, health care. In return, we asked one thing - respect for democratic values, including free speech. Do they agree? This is my simple test."

The best way to defend this brave man is to ensure that he's not the only target. There has been too much embarrassed silence and self-censorship over this affair in the halls of Western journalism. We need more images and drawings of Mohammed, not fewer, to show Muslim thugs that their religious laws have no power over us - and to ensure that they'll have no single target, if they persist in the belief that they can avoid criticism by murdering all their critics. (Any Daylight Atheism readers have artistic talent?)

It's not just lone fanatics, but governments that are getting in on the anti-free-speech game. Sadly, Ireland's new blasphemy law, which criminalizes the publication of matter "that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion", has just taken effect. (Atheism is not similarly protected from offense, in case you were wondering.)

However, we should count ourselves fortunate for having the smart freethinkers at Atheist Ireland - who promptly challenged this idiotic piece of medievalism by publishing 25 blasphemous quotes, against a wide variety of religions, as a way of testing the new law and exposing its foolishness. Will the government dare to prosecute them? Stay tuned!

January 2, 2010, 10:52 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink26 comments

Another Cult Leader Convicted

I've got to give the government credit: they've been doing an excellent job cracking down on criminals who try to hide behind religion. Between Kent Hovind, Warren Jeffs, and now a new conviction, federal prosecutors have been diligently enforcing the law against creeps, con men, and petty tyrants who claim that the law of God gives them license to break the laws of society.

This month's creep is Tony Alamo, former head of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries. On Friday, Alamo was convicted on ten counts of taking girls as young as 9 across state lines for sex between 1994 and 2005.

If you're not familiar with Tony Alamo, this report by the Southern Poverty Law Center gives plenty of sordid details. The high points include intense hatred for Catholics (including Jack Chick-esque pamphlets denouncing the Vatican as a demonic conspiracy), a past conviction and prison sentence for tax evasion, and daily radio broadcasts by Alamo defending polygamy and underage marriage. Based on the SPLC report, the Alamo compound was run with the vicious, authoritarian attitude standard for all cults:

The following year, the Alamos purchased the property in Saugus and built sex-segregated dormitories for their California followers, who today number in the hundreds. Members collected spoiled food from supermarkets and Dumpsters to prepare communal meals. Living conditions were squalid. Punishment for stepping out of line ranged from fasting to beatings to being kicked out of the group and losing your spouse and children, many ex-members say.

And what would a good cult be without a heaping helping of hypocrisy and greed among the leadership?

...[Members] toiled as field hands on farms in nearby Bakersfield, turning their entire paychecks over to their cult leaders. The Alamos directed their followers to build them a large, lavish home on a nearby hilltop and drove a fleet of black Cadillac sedans (today, Tony Alamo favors a black Escalade). Ex-members report that Susan Alamo spent thousands of dollars on fur coats, fake eyelashes, plastic surgery and wigs. Tony wore turtle-leather platform boots, diamond pinky rings and a bearskin coat with bear claw epaulettes.

At its peak, Alamo's ministry was taking in millions of dollars per year. But his career took a bizarre turn when his first wife, Susan, died in April 1982. For months, he kept her embalmed body and ordered his followers to pray around the clock for her resurrection. The failure of this effort may have been what snapped Alamo's already tenuous grip on reality, and soon afterward, according to ex-members, he began taking multiple wives, some barely into their teens, some even younger. Repeated complaints to the police by former members who'd escaped finally spurred prosecutors to take action.

Just in case you had any residual sympathy for Alamo, permit me to wipe it out with this report of his behavior at trial:

He blurted out a reference to the Branch Davidian raid at Waco, Texas, muttered expletives during testimony and fell asleep even while alleged victims were testifying.

..."I'm just another one of the prophets that went to jail for the Gospel," Alamo called to reporters afterward as he was escorted to a waiting U.S. marshal's vehicle.

Why do I bring this up? It's not just to exult in Alamo's downfall (although there's more than enough reason to do that). It's because this case is another object lesson on two important, interrelated points.

First: Being religious does not make you a good person. If anything, it worked in the opposite direction. Alamo's extreme religiosity allowed him to justify, to his followers and himself, why he should wield unlimited power over them, and their faith in him is what permitted this sex abuse to go on as long as it did. And, it must be said, the Bible does support polygamy, and says nothing about age of consent. A morality based on reason, not on blind faith and obedience, would not have led to this.

Second: This is why atheists criticize religion. Too many people who should know better persist in believing that religion is beneficial and harmless - even when confronted with stories like this one. We speak out because we want to tear down this facade, tear down the societal illusion that anything with "faith" in the name automatically deserves respect. That's the belief that allowed Alamo's cult to flourish. We want to instill the attitude that claims require evidence, that it's worth being skeptical when a two-bit hustler claims to be a prophet of the one true God. If more people thought this way, there's a much better chance that future Tony Alamos might be prevented.

July 25, 2009, 9:30 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink14 comments

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