Sunday, February 28, 2010

Tax-Exempt Status for Religious Organizations?

Our nation-wide recession has hit each community to a different degree, but Colorado Springs, Colorado has suffering more than most. I read this article a few weeks ago, detailing how many city services thought to be vital by most citizens are being defunded. Colorado Springs is losing many of its streetlights, policemen and firefighters, and the upkeep of public parks. This is a very sad and scary situation for the people of Colorado Springs, but it wasn’t until I read this article that one reason Colorado Springs has been hit so hard became apparent.

As the second article details, there are over 100 “right-wing Christian organizations” in Colorado Springs. It has an obvious bias against these organizations, and does not specify how many, if any, non-Christian or ‘left-wing’ Christian organizations there may be in the city. However, since religious organizations are given tax-exempt status in America, the large number of religious organizations in the city have contributed to its lack of funding available since they are not paying what some might call ‘their fair share’ of taxes.

This recession has thrust into the forefront an issue few people really even know about—tax exemption for religious organizations. All non-profit organizations are permitted to receive tax-exempt status from the government, so they do not have to pay federal income tax and, on a state-by-state basis, can be exempt from sales tax, property tax, and local income taxes. Most religious organizations, as long as they do not involve themselves in political elections, are non-profit organizations and thus granted this tax-exempt status.

This is not simply the government excluding charitable donations and the like from being subject to taxes—a church’s soup kitchen is exempt, but so is a fun pizza party for its members. There is a strong argument for religious organizations’ continued existence as tax-exempt entities—they are non-profit organizations, generally dedicated to improving the spiritual well-being of their members and helping the local community. Our government recognizes the usefulness of all types of non-profits, and this tax exemption can be viewed as either removing the burden of paying taxes from all of these groups, or favoring these groups, including religious organizations, over the rest of the population.

It was hard to discern my own opinion on the subject, but I think that in the end I have to come down on the side of the religious organizations. As long as these entities are following the government’s rules for non-profit organizations, they deserve to have the state’s burden of taxes lifted when other organizations with a secular purpose are treated in that way. This also helps to avoid a perception of an establishment of religion, since secular and religious organizations are held to the same standards for tax exemption. I think that as long as any type of organization meeting the guidelines for a non-profit organization is granted tax-exempt status, without regard to its religious affiliation, the exemption is constitutional. And in fact, granting tax exemption to secular non-profits and not religious ones is really an unfair burden on religion and probably unconstitutional itself.

However, in this case Colorado Springs and the State of Colorado may want to reexamine their tax exemptions for all non-profit organizations. They can revise the tax laws to lessen the exemptions across the board, since it seems obvious that the city needs to be taking in more tax revenues and the large number of non-profit organizations there are not helping their economic woes.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

When Jesus says, "...let the children come to me..." I don't think he meant this way.

In this article about the starvation of a boy, a "christian" cult goes to trial.

In early 2007 or late 2006 The leader of the cult '1 Mind Ministry' ordered the followers to disallow a child to eat until the child said amen before he ate.

According to the cults belief system, this was completely ethical. What is interesting is that they are being persecuted for their values and decisions based on religious convictions. Regardless of the first amendment right which values individual religious beliefs.

The US government is pushing its ethical system on this cult. Why should the cult follow the ethics set by the governing power? Are these ethics based on the ethics of a certain religion? If so, is this really freedom of religion?

These are all questions that have been asked, answered, re-asked, and re-answered. It seems as if there is no set judgment as to what is or is not allowed when religion is involved.

The case is becoming old, but the trial is just starting. The mom, who pled guilty to child abuse resulting in death. She plans on testifying against the leaders of the cult whom she says, ' are the real criminals'. The defendants in the case hold that there ways are truth and that they are not guilty quoting, "The truth shall set you free"

Regardless of our own ethical beliefs, should we limit the rights of religious groups when their rituals contradict basic human understanding of right and wrong? What is interesting is that if the cult were to convince a majority that this was an acceptable punishment for the action, then this would be a common understanding of truth. As with the Mayans, when human sacrifice became a culturally accepted necessity. Or, with the Germans and genecide of un-clean peoples that "ruined" society. These could be considered cults as well.

Yes, they were persecuted for their actions. Let us think about this though, America has 'gotten away with' many things that common ethical beliefs would shun. Two well known instances are African American civil rights and slavery, and also the near eradication of Native Americans and their cultures.

These were not religious movements, but they were still based of common ethical values set by religious beliefs and fear of 'death'. Fear of a higher power than ones own self, like death and God, can move a person to do irrational and even 'unethical' actions.

Overall question is, What is right and what is wrong? Who are we to decide?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Get Out of My Court Room!

In November 2009, Joseph Reyes, the defiant ex-husband of Rebecca Reyes, baptized their three-year-old daughter into the Catholic Church without the mother's knowledge. During the beginning period of their marriage, Rebecca argues that Joseph promised to raise their daughter in the Jewish faith. Upon finding out that the daughter had been baptized in the Catholic Church, Rebecca decided to take the insubordinate father to court. On February 16, 2010, the Chicago Tribune published this article "Divorcing Couple War Over Child's Religion" in which explains the proceedings of the above story.
Surprisingly once the case ended up in the courts Judge Edward Jordan, of the Cook County Circuit Court, made the decsion to temporarily restrain Joseph from allowing the child to attend any religious services other than those of the Jewish faith. Joseph Reyes, who is attending John Marshall Law School, with cameras and a television news crew, defied the orders and took his child to a Catholic Mass.
With contempt allegations now on the table, Joseph Reyes acquired Joel Brodsky, of the Drew Peterson case, who than argued that "every parent has a right to take their child to their place of worship as long as it is not a harm to the child." Rebecca Reyes' side argued that since the child attends a Jewish pre-school, she would "suffer confusion to her emotional detriment" with the simultaneous attendance in the Catholic and Jewish faith. Her lawyers argued that Joseph's actions were "malicious" and in retaliation to the divorce, specifically since he had previously promised to raise their daughter Jewish even after he himself was converted to Judaism.
In 1776, there was a movement in Virginia for the General Assessment Bill in which would allow tax money to support teachers of the Protestant Church. It was through this battle and others like it in which Madison's and Jefferson's arguments lead to the wording of the First Amendment as it is today. Court case after court case has referred to their words in their deliberations. In fact, the term "wall of separation" quoted from Jefferson was first used in jurisprudence of the Reynolds v. United States case, which was concerned with the Mormons and polygamy. This case can be seen as one of the first cases in which the courts entered the discussion of what the First Amendment means, from which the courts acknowledged the "wall of separation" except for in those matters which could be harmful to society as a whole, in the case of polygamy.
Reynolds v. United States I feel could be used as an example for the situation of the Reyes couple. What I mean by this is as was deliberated in the Reynolds v. United States case concerning religious rights, two questions come to mind. First, does allowing the three-year-old girl to attend Catholic services with her father cause harm to society? I think the easy answer to that question is it does not. Secondly, is there harm being caused to the daughter? I grant that one could argue for psychological harm, however, as some in the case have stated, like Carlton Marcyan, a divorce specialist, "a three-year-old is not going to know whether she is at a Catholic Church or a synagogue." I also grant that this could be argued; however, the psychological capacity of a three-year-old is very limited. From this I would argue that harm in this specific situation is not a valid argument.
With that said, this leads me into my main point, which is the wall of separation in which Jefferson and Madison were so concerned with. As parents, each have the right to take their child to the place of worship of their choice. Madison argues this is a natural right and can only be dictated by one's own conscience. Thus, despite promises made, both Rebecca and Joseph have the natural right under the above premise to teach their daughter religiously as they see fit, which from the courts deliberations would mean that Judge Edward Jordan decision to bar Joseph from taking his daughter to Mass was not Constitutional. To me, I am actually surprised such a case was even entertained. I grant I am not a lawyer or a judge, but if I were I personally would have never even allowed the case to enter the courts in the first place.

The "Millennial" Impact: Religion and Government in an Unaffiliated America

There can be no doubt that the relationship between religion and government has presented a persistent question for Americans throughout our history. The problem has revolved around mutual concerns of influence: that of the government imposing limits upon a religious institution (or institutions) and that of a religious institution (or institutions) manipulating the government for its own ends. A recent article released on Pew Forum (here)concerning the religious views of members of the Millennial generation, those “born after 1980”, who “began to come of age around the year 2000”, raises an interesting question for the future of the separation debate. Does the separation of religion and government remain a problem for a country that is less affiliated with institutionalized religions?

The article, which is based on data from a number of different surveys, states that “Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X…and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults.” While this rise in unaffiliated young adults certainly does not necessarily mean the demise of institutionalized religions, it does point to the possibility of a less religiously affiliated society in America’s near future. For better or worse, people raised within institutionalized religious traditions often base their decisions and actions on the ethical and moral principles taught by these institutions. For unaffiliated people, the question arises of which influences shape their moral/ethical codes.

While some may fear that lack of institutionalized moral education entails a lack of moral discretion, the article shows that this does not seem to be the case with the Millennial generation. The article claims that while Millennials participate less in religious institutions, they “remain fairly traditional in their religious beliefs.” What is of particular interest is Millennials’ view of the relationship between religion and government. The article notes that Millennials are “slightly more supportive…of government efforts to protect morality, as well as somewhat more comfortable with involvement in politics by churches and other houses of worship.” Again, one must wonder: what has informed these religious beliefs?

While it is likely that many members of the Millennial generation were in fact educated within institutional traditions, there is one other influence that should be considered. Millennials constitute the first generation to be significantly influenced by “new media”, a term indicating media and communication that is electronic, digital, computerized or networked. With the emergence of new media, access to multi-cultural and multi-religious modes of thought has become more available. It is reasonable to assume that Millennials’ religious and moral beliefs have been influenced, at least in part, by interaction with new media. This might explain why Millennials are more accepting of churches and houses of worship taking part in political issues because increased exposure to multiple religious views and institutions can lead to a more balanced view of these institutions’ power. Millennials seem to hold the view that as long as many different institutions are represented, their involvement in political affairs is of little concern. If this trend of unaffiliated youth continues, it is possible that the debate over separation may take a new direction or fall away completely. However, a new debate may need to be raised.

As I am sure anyone would agree, people informed by different media sources, for instance Fox News vs. the Daily Show (yes, those are comparable news sources), will have very different formative ideas—including religious and moral ideas. If moral, ethical and religious ideas are going to be informed by media sources rather than religious institutions in the future, it seems that a new concern over the separation of media and state is on the rise.

The End of the Burqa in France?

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece entitled “Behind the Burqa,” Sandeep Gopalan questions the French government’s recommendation to ban the burqa. Gopalan believes that recent events in France are trying to send a message to Muslims: “Frenchness” needs to be returned to the streets.

On January 26th, 2010, a French parliamentary commission recommended a partial ban on burqas that would go into effect in hospitals, schools, government offices and on public transportation. Women who defied the ban would be denied public services. The government report argues that “’the wearing of the full veil is a challenge to our republic. This is unacceptable. We must condemn this excess.'” However, it is estimated that less than two thousand Muslim women wear these head coverings. It is hard to imagine that this small number of women would be capable of challenging the French republic.

I agree with Gopalan when he writes that the proposed ban is a serious invasion of personal liberty. While this liberty can be challenged in cases that may involve crime prevention or security, this issue does not seem to be the case. In a country like France which prides itself on its secular ideals, it is confusing that the government would take the stand that it has in regards to the burqa. The author of the article makes an interesting point as he describes the implications of this ban; like many of the issues that we have discussed, there is a slippery slope in regards to religious liberties. Should turbans, yarmulkes, saris and long skirts also be banned? Would a government ever ban jewelry containing crucifixes? As the Swiss have banned minarets in recent weeks, it is hard to understand why Muslims in particular are under attack.

In my opinion, France has crossed the line in regards to the separation of church and state associated with a secular state. What scares me is that this may become an issue here in the United States. While our government continually tries to stay out of religious affairs, there seems to be many issues that the government does get involved with. I do not believe it is a government’s responsibility to interfere in the practice of religion. If women want to wear a burqa, they should be allowed to, unless it creates a dangerous situation for the individuals or others in the community. The fact that the French government has singled out one specific group, makes it that much harder to understand. As the French government debates whether to pass a law officially banning the burqa, it will be interesting to see how the French people react, as well as if other countries follow in the same direction.

"Allahu Akbar" - God Is Great

On November 5, 2009, Major Nidal Hasan walked into one of the military buildings on the army base, Fort Hood, and open fired while yelling “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic). He killed thirteen people and left over a dozen injured. The Fort Hood Shooting shocked the country and was an absolute tragedy but could it have been prevented? Supervisors admitted to being concerned about his extremist views on Islam and his odd behavior. He was currently on a “performance-improvement plan” which was his punishment for giving class presentations on his views of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. He claimed the Iraq War was a war on Islam and that the Islamic law was more powerful than the U.S Constitution. Despite being reprimanded for his views, he continued to give his presentations regularly. Hasan is currently paralyzed from his wounds in a Brooke Army Medical Hospital in San Antonio, Texas where he will remain until his trial.

This article is relevant to our discussions in class because of the religious implications. Hasan made it very clear that he believes his religion is more powerful than the U.S Constitution. Was punishing Hasan for his presentation a violation of the rights granted to him by the first amendment? When is law considered supreme over religion or vice versa?

Legally, Hasan has the right to say what he believes, however, as a soldier he has taken an oath to honor and protect the United States. His strong beliefs of religion over law and his negative opinions about the wars he is directly involved in, made him a direct threat to national security. As with politicians, soldiers should not integrate religion with their professional lives. This does not mean that they cannot practice religion, only that it should not impair their judgment when they are handling or defending matters of the law.

Officials who recognized this behavior should have spoken up but instead were restrained by the military cardinal rule of not turning in “problem soldiers”. As a response to the shootings Defense Department Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Veron Clark stated that his department would “recommend the army and the entire military to focus more on looking internally for potential threats among the troops”. Even though this might seem like the correct action to take after this incident, it can lead to the similar beginning of a third Red Scare but with terrorism instead of communism. There is a potential threat of judgment being based on all soldiers of the Muslim faith and their loyalty towards the country could be called into question. Soldiers of different faiths should not be implicated but rather the obvious extremists who are blatantly acting out.

As we are beginning to see in our discussions in class, there is a fine line between religion and its relationship with the law. This case is similar to the Scott Roeder case with the question of religion or law supremacy. When does law come before religion? I believe that when there is a question of national security or the welfare of a society is threatened, the laws in which everyone agrees to by being a United States citizen should take precedent. It does not matter what religion a person lives by because the law is the one common factor that we all share and agree to live by despite our differences.

We'll Help You... If You Believe in Jesus

On February 17, 2010, NYCLU announced its (partial) victory against government agencies in New York in a settlement connected to Lown v. The Salvation Army, brought to court in 2004. New York agencies have agreed to monitor The Salvation Army “to ensure that it does not impose religion on recipients of its government-funded social services.”

Employees became concerned when The Salvation Army began reorganizing in 2003. In that year, it began to dismantle the procedures separating its religious arm and its social services arm. What might happen if, for example, The Salvation Army, requiring its employees of the social services arm to “identify their church affiliation, the frequency of their church attendance, and to sign an endorsement of The Salvation Army’s mission to ‘preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ,’” began to refuse child-care services or HIV services to recipients because they did not also follow the Army’s evangelical Christianity? After all, 95% of budget for the Social Services for Children (one service offered by The Salvation Army) comes from government funding. If The Salvation Army required that to receive help from the SSC one had to join The Salvation Army church or profess a particular belief or something similar, 95% of the money they would be using to do so would be from the government.

The problem here is the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. If government money is going to a faith-based service that proselytizes, isn’t the government endorsing that proselytizing? Isn’t the government, then, in some way establishing that religion? The problem is really a matter of degrees. How far away from the government does the government money have to be before its okay to use to further a particular religious belief? We see this argument again and again in public debate. Can government vouchers be used at parochial schools? More recently, can a government-backed healthcare system pay for abortions? For the voucher programs, the money goes to the parents first, but is that enough of a separation? In the case of The Salvation Army, the degree of separation is every smaller. The money goes directly to The Salvation Army. If The Salvation Army uses that money to proselytize, we’re moving into muddy waters.

The government can “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” However, time and again, the courts have broadened that understanding. Not only can Congress make no law, no agency in the executive branch can do so. After all, establishment can occur in many ways, including through funding. It only seems appropriate that any agency that operates with money collected from tax-payers, that agency will have to operate with the same restrictions placed on the government.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

How Christian Were the Founders?

This article, “How Christian Were the Founders,” examines an issue that has been prevalent in class discussions thus far this semester: the relationship between religion and public schools. Last month the Texas State Board of Education received numerous petitions for changes to be made to the current social-studies curriculum guidelines. Along with such petitions, the members of the state board of education also submitted their own proposed changes to the current curriculum. Members of the Texas State Board of Education, one of the most influential as well as conservative boards in the nation, have put forward a number of new amendments, that all seem to contain the underlying factor of religion. The members of the board, by altering the curriculum, wish to allow Christianity to play a larger role in the instruction of American history. Board members believe that the Framers were Christian men, who in fact intended to make the United States a Christian nation; and that the idea of separation of church and state is a myth. Therefore, they believe that the curriculum should display to students the “truth” concerning the history of the United States; and that the current curriculum ignores and masks the role religion played in the founding and development of the United States. Those opposed to these curriculum changes fear, that due to the influential power of the state board in Texas, that such changes will be made by other states as well, following the lead of Texas.

These changes proposed by the board clearly present several difficult questions that must be addressed. The first question that comes to mind is: Did the Framers actually intend for the United States to be a Christian nation? One might also ask: Does altering the curriculum to focus more on the role played by Christianity in the history of the United States violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment? Lastly, one might also inquire as to why these particular individuals on the board, who are not in any way avid historians, have the ability to dictate what the “truth” is concerning the history of the United States?

In response to the first question I would say, first and foremost, that it is certainly true that the Framers were Christian men. As to their intentions to make this nation a Christian one I would have to disagree. Religion did play a role in the founding of the United States; and some individuals did argue for some sort of state-support for religion, as was seen in Patrick Henry’s Bill. However, ultimately I believe that the Framers created the religion clauses of the First Amendment to ward against the government encroaching in on religion and vice versa. Although the commonly referred to “wall of separation” is not found in the Constitution this does not mean that the Framers intended for their new nation to be a Christian one. Jefferson was the one who wrote those words and clearly he was aware of the intentions behind the framing of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. Also the Framers deliberately left the word ‘God’ out of the Constitution, and instead resorted to the use of more neutral language. If the Framers really meant for the United States to be a Christian nation, then why would they have included the religion clauses at all; and why would they have left the word ‘God’ out of the Constitution entirely?

In regard to the second question, I believe that it is perfectly acceptable for public school curriculums to include the role religion has played in history. An examination of the Crusades, the Protestant Reformation etc. would require a textbook to address the role played by religion. So too should U.S. history books include the fact that the Framers were Christian men. The readings, for example, that were done for the first week of class, “The American Experiment in Historical Context,” and “The Colonial Roots of Religious Liberty,” would be acceptable additions to a U.S. history curriculum. These readings simply included the background and evolution that led to the final decision made by the Framers concerning religion. To have a textbook that declares that the intention of the Framers was to create a Christian nation is, however, a violation of the Establishment Clause. This seems to go beyond mere history, to a curriculum that is actively promoting one religion over another.

In response to the last question, it is my opinion that biased, politically motivated, board members should not have the role of determining historical “truth.” In Cantwell v. Connecticut the Supreme Court struck down a law prohibiting solicitation without a license because the licenses, according to the law, had to be granted based on the opinion of a state authority. It seems that the Texas board, similarly to the law in Cantwell, is using its own subjective opinions to create a public school curriculum without an appeal to an impartial expert.

In summation, I believe that public school curriculums can, and should, include the fact that the Framers were religious men; however, going beyond that, and asserting that the Framers intended to create a Christian nation is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. “My attitude is this country was founded by a group of men who were Christians but who didn’t want the government dictating religion, and that’s exactly what McLeroy (member of the board) and his colleagues are trying to do.”

Friday, February 19, 2010

Don’t Even Think About Studying Arabic!

When Pomona College Student Nicholas George went through airport security in Philadelphia, he wasn’t expecting to end up handcuffed and interrogated by the FBI on suspicion of being a terrorist. Though he was eventually released, the incident brings up a wide variety of issues from free speech to civil rights. What was George’s suspicious activity? Arabic flashcards. Read the full article here.

A student of Arabic at Pomona, George was studying vocabulary. Unfortunately one of the flashcards listed the term “terrorist”, another listed “bomb.” While possibly jarring to the TSA agent who inspected them, as George indicated, the cards were for Media Arabic (newspapers) and these are common terms in both American and Arab media stories. The biggest part of this issue stems from one thought, the TSA agent would never have seen the offending terms if they hadn’t felt the need to search George’s cards, simply because they had Arabic letters on them. While certainly in this hyper sensitive security environment, the presence of Arabic flashcards might indeed trigger a “random search,” but assuming there were no bomb materials or other weapons on his person or in his luggage, George should have been bid a good day. The manner in which this situation escalated is the most legally troubling aspect of this entire incident.

During his FBI interrogation, George was asked if he was a Muslim or if he belonged to any pro-Islamic groups. Oddly the response to this should be, so what if he was? Within the context of this incident are the underlying beliefs that all Muslims are terrorists. What is even more intriguing, is the case this incident makes against the differentiation between religious belief and action. This distinction, as seen in Mormon polygamy decisions from the late 19th century, is a common interpretation of the free exercise clause. Ultimately you can believe whatever you like, and that is protected by the Constitution, however it does not mean all actions, even those stemming from those beliefs, are likewise protected. You can believe that your religion tells you to go around smacking people with a stick, but you may still get prosecuted for assault if you actually do it. The belief/action relationship is what is at the heart of this case. The TSA and FBI might actually have a footing on free speech grounds if they could establish that the presence of an Arabic flashcard was highly likely to incite panic, but other than this, their real argument is that somehow the possession of Arabic flashcards is either a clear and present danger to the security of the airplane or that a desire to study Arabic presents a necessary and sufficient condition to assume terrorist activity is imminent. More broadly, this incident suggests that suspicion of being a Muslim or holding pro-Islamic or even pro-Arabic sentiment (without any action whatsoever) justifies detention and interrogation – likely without any representation.

From the security flag based solely on language to interrogation stemming from the presence of two words to incarnation based on potential religious or political affiliations, this entire incident is a violation of almost every aspect of the first amendment, purely in the name of fear. Some civil liberties might need to be stretched in the name of security, but when that stretching expands to include thoughts and beliefs without any action, we are in violation of both the law and the very spirit of the civilization that the added security measures are designed to protect.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

An issue that has been primarily dominated by the religious groups has taken another direction. This month, mainly in areas of the city with higher black population concentration, a number of billboards had appeared about the abortion issue.,CST-NWS-mitch16.article

Previous discussions against free access to abortions has been between religious groups on one side and groups supporting adult woman’s right to make choices about their lives. The billboards now focus on the fact that the percentage of abortions for black women is higher than the general population would suggest. The promoter of these billboards claims that it is a racist activity that has encourages black women to seek abortions. The claim implies a motive to control the black population. My interest is that the groups may have concluded that race is more important an argument than the religious consideration of the soul of the unborn fetus. I think that they may actually have more impact with this line of thought than with the religious argument.
The race issue is something that has been addresses in many court actions. Race is easier to identify with than a religious faith. Statistics are more readily available as even cited in the linked article. But where are the accepted statistics on the number of souls lost by abortion. There are none because there is no definition that is accepted by both sides of the abortion argument.
The argument now becomes whether the people supporting abortion are actually racially motivated. Without researching specific documentation, I feel their argument will fail when we take list for financial supporters of “Pro Choice” groups and compare that with list for supporters of various racist groups. I propose that there is limited overlap between these groups. I think a strong correlation would be found between groups that have actually fought for racial equality and groups that are ‘Pro Choice.’

Divorce Battle: Dad Faces Jail Time for Taking Daughter to Church - ABC News

Divorce Battle: Dad Faces Jail Time for Taking Daughter to Church - ABC News
What do you guys think about this one? Is there a double-standard here? They hold joint custody, so why does the wife's decisions weigh in more heavily than the husband's?? Things that make you go hhmmm

Does Chuck Norris Always Know Best?

From the fear of receiving a roundhouse kick to the face, when Chuck Norris speaks, I’d usually listen. However, this all changed for me in the summer of 2009. Why? On June 10, 2009 Chuck Norris publicly endorsed a few candidates seeking the gubernatorial elections from Ohio, Iowa, and most importantly for this case, Alabama. Chuck’s pick: Judge Roy Moore.

For those who may not recognize his name, Roy Moore gained legendary status when he placed a two ton granite monument of the Ten Commandments inside his state courtroom as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama, and then refused to remove it. With his refusal, the Judiciary Court of Alabama unanimously chose to remove Moore from this post as Chief Justice, and with that the monument was removed as well.

Despite the fact that this trial was back in 2003, it is impossible to talk about Judge Roy Moore without talking about this controversy. So naturally, as Moore is now in a tight race for the upcoming election in Alabama, lots of people are talking about him once again, even Chuck Norris. Norris is quoted as stating, “Roy's resume reads like a 'Who's Who' of American life and justice: from private practice to District Attorney then circuit judge and chief justice…Roy Moore's awesome autobiographical manifesto "So Help Me God!" is a must read for any patriot.”

Throughout the countless interviews and debates surrounding his Ten Commandments controversy, Moore always maintained that he had the right to “publicly acknowledge God.” This statement was, and still is, Moore’s entire basis for standing by his monument. However, the problem is not Judge Moore’s personal religious beliefs, or his personal right to acknowledge God, but can the State acknowledge God? In Federal Court Judge Myron Thompson’s final opinion in the trial he states, “While the Chief Justice is free to keep whatever religious belief he chooses the State may not acknowledge the sovereignty of the Judeo-Christian God and attribute to that God our religious freedom.”

On his 2010 campaign website, Moore states that the statement made by Judge Thompson was “unlawful and “contradicted not only the Constitution of the United States but every State Constitution to include that of Alabama which acknowledges the existence of God.” I’m not completely positive, but I believe the Constitution of Alabama does this; however, I’m almost certain that the US Constitution does not. So who has the final say, the federal courts? Or the state judge?

This controversy brings many issues and questions to mind, however Judge Thompson hit the nail on the head. Can the State publicly acknowledge God? Why does Judge Roy Moore feel that he has the authority, indeed the right, to do so in a State courtroom? But the more pressing matter is perhaps that up until 2 weeks ago, Moore was the front runner in the polls and continues to hang right around the top. Many Alabamians, myself included, are worried that if the “Ten Commandments Judge” wins the election and becomes the governor of Alabama, what does that entail for those citizens of Alabama who side with Judge Thompson?

If we allow public religious displays in governmental buildings and courtrooms, does this mean we are endorsing a particular set of beliefs? And that those who do not adhere will be punished perhaps more harshly than those that do?

The lesson here, don’t always listen to Chuck Norris!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Are Airport Body Scanners A Violation of Religious Rights?

Recently, controversy has emerged following a new policy instituting full body scanners in airports all over the country. Among the various protestors, Muslim-American groups have begun to support a “fatwa” or religious ruling that forbids Muslims from going through body scanners at airports. According to many Muslims, having to pass through these fully revealing body scanners is a violation of Islamic rules on modesty. “It is a violation of clear Islamic teachings that men or women be seen naked by other men and women…Islam highly emphasizes modesty and considers it part of faith.” The Fiqh Council of North America, an Islamic scholars board, has said that they fully support those Muslims that do not feel comfortable going through body scanners, and suggests that they request pat downs instead. The decision to install these scanners throughout Airports in the US stems from a recent attempted terrorist attack by a Muslim suspect onboard a Detroit bound flight, the day after Christmas. Many feel that upgraded security measures, such as the body scanners, could deter future terrorist attacks and prevent the loss of American lives. However, policies like these are never as easy to enact as anticipated due to backlash from multiple civil rights groups. From here the logical question becomes; is forcing individuals with conflicting religious beliefs to pass through body scanners at airports, for the sake of national security, a violation of the first amendment? To beat around the bush and circumvent the true issue at stake would not being doing Americans any good; that is to say, while it may seem as though Muslims are at the root of a majority of terrorist attacks and implementing this security measure might indeed save hundreds if not thousands of lives, from a purely constitutional point of view, I cannot support forcing these body scanners on individuals. The United States, a country founded on freedom and liberty, embodies a nation that does not persecute or forcefully convert those with unique religious beliefs. While enforcing a much needed security measure is by no means persecuting or forcefully converting an individual, one must look at the larger picture. When did surrendering of our freedoms become patriotic? Now more than ever we can see problems in the government’s respect for constitutional rights such as unauthorized use of torture, illegal phone tapping, and warrantless surveillance. Furthermore one could build on this and argue that these body scanners infringe upon the fourth amendment, which guarantees American citizens the right to privacy. The opposition would most probably argue that while body scanners may not be the best solution, their effectiveness and potential to save lives is the most paramount issue. I contest however that forcing religious individuals to engage in something that blatantly ignores their beliefs is a more egregious act than allowing those individuals to abstain from a national security measure. What if tomorrow it was conceived that yarmulkes on flights were a breach of security; then what? While one cannot simply argue from a slippery slope point of view, one doesn’t need to. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” If passing through a full body scan violated Christian or Jewish law, wouldn’t many of us have a problem with this new measure?

Muslims Exempt from Airport Body Scanners Due to Religious Beliefs

On February 12, 2010 The Council on American-Islamic Relations ruled that Muslim travelers are exempt from going through airport security scanners due to their religious beliefs. This decision was made in response to a fatwa, or religious ruling, that was made by the Fiqh Council of North America regarding body scanners in airports. The Fiqh Council of North America is an association of Muslims who interpret Islamic law here in North America. According to the fatwa, “it is a violation of clear Islamic teachings that men or women be seen naked by other men and women.” This order forbids Muslim travelers from passing through full body scanners in airports because the scans violate religious rules on nudity. It adds, “Islam highly emphasizes haya (modesty) and considers it a part of faith. The Quran has commanded the believers, both men and women, to cover their private parts.”

The body scanners were implemented after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a plane using the explosives he had placed in his underwear this past Christmas. As a result, in The United States there are currently 40 scanners in 19 airports, and by the end of this year, there could be as many as 450 scanners. The Transportation Security Administration said it is “committed to keeping passengers safe and insisted the scanners that show the outlines of a person’s body in graphic detail did not represent an invasion of privacy.”

Thanks to the ruling made by The Council on American-Islamic Relations, Muslims traveling in the United States will have the option of undergoing a pat down search by a security guard, rather than going through the body scanner. This decision "complicates efforts to intensify screening of potential terrorists who are Muslim.” It has enraged many people, as they feel it is unfair that Muslims have found a way to excuse themselves from the requirements of the law. In Britain, travelers who refuse to pass through the scanners could be banned from boarding. This is the mindset that most Americans agree with, as they have made obvious through their comments to news stations, websites, and radio shows. A popular response has been, “if Muslims don’t like our policies then they don’t have to fly our planes,” or “no scan, no fly.” But this brings about a constitutional issue, as the 1st Amendment guarantees the freedom of religion. Should Muslims be allowed to practice and exercise their religion if it goes against a law that is in effect to protect American citizens?

I feel that exempting Muslims from going through airport scanners has the potential of introducing a slippery slope. If they are excused from this, then what happens when Person A comes along and doesn’t feel comfortable having his nude body image exposed on the scanner? If Muslims are given an exemption, he is going to want to know why he doesn’t have the right to have the same exemption, and same with Persons B, C, D, etc. It seems counterproductive to have airport agents giving pat down searches to every traveler who feels offended by the body scanners, especially since pat down searches are not anywhere near as accurate as the body scanners. And what happens when travelers feel violated by the pat down searches?

The purpose of the scanners is to provide a method of ensuring safer flights and more secure air travel, which in today’s world is something that we cannot afford to risk. When it comes to matters of the safety and security of our nation, I think that law trumps religious beliefs, and I agree with those who say “no scan, no fly.”

Here is a video of an interview with the head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Politians Not Upholding the Constitution

This article discusses a controversy caused by a comment made by Lancaster, California Mayor R. Rex Parris during a state of the city address. Parris commented that he was "growing a Christian community,” and planned to "endorse prayer at city meetings, [...], as a way to validate a Christian stance." The Council on American-Islamic Relations wrote to the U.S Justice Department arguing that Parris' remark violated the Constitution. Parris did apologize and defended that he made the comment in a speech to Christian ministers at an event he paid for. He argued that "all of us get to express our opinion wherever, [...], including opinions of faith..." The article concludes by noting another California politician, Lancaster Councilwoman Sherry Marquez, criticized for posting anti-Muslim remarks on her Facebook.

Does Mayor Parris have a point in saying he has the right to make his opinions known? Does it matter that the event was personally sponsored? Does such a comment count as violating the Establishment clause of the first amendment?

I strongly believe Mayor Parris' comments were completely inappropriate and that he should be help accountable for them. Politicians are merely people, and I understand that they are likely to base their platforms on their religious beliefs; it's only natural. But, as an American politician you are agreeing to put the Constitution above your religious beliefs, as we are expected to do as American citizens. Mayor Pariss clearly stated his efforts to bring the church into the politics of the state of California. It is irrelevant whom he is addressing or why he is addressing them, he is meant to represent America and its government; which do not support the establishment of one religion over another. I also believe Councilwoman Marquez should suffer consequences for her discriminatory comment. I think politicians should be held to a higher standard when it comes to upholding the Constitution. How are members of a state expected to abide by laws of equality, toleration, and acceptance if those governing it cannot? I am especially surprised to hear such comments come from politicians of California, considering its generally liberal and accepting nature. I would believe such religious politicians could work their beliefs into their campaigns without blatantly offending or favoring a specific religion. Even if Mayor Parris stood for everything I wanted in a leader, I do not think I would be able to vote for him knowing all of his decisions would be based on trying to “Christianify” the state.

If we allow politicians to get away with running their campaigns in a bias way and making comments that violate the Constitution, we are not defending our position to separate church and state. There is a reason we accept this way of government and we cannot allow those within it to break it down.

Public High School Graduation Ceremony in a Church

Across the nation, primarily in the last three years, public school boards have been criticized by both Americans United (AU) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for holding high school commencement in a religious building. Public schools in Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, and Wisconsin have been challenged (and in some cases sued) on a constitutional platform because of what the AU and the ACLU consider to be a blur of church and state. This past week, the AU and the ACLU celebrated the fact that the last of five public schools in the state of Connecticut has agreed to move its graduation ceremony from a church to a secular venue. Articles were posted by both the AU and the ACLU.

The first question I would pose is, are the arguments made by the AU and the ACLU correct? Is holding a public high school graduation ceremony in a church, or any religious venue unconstitutional?

In my opinion, yes, holding public high school graduation in any place of worship is certainly unconstitutional. In these cases, using a church as the venue was based neither on availability nor size accommodation; rather it was simply based on tradition. However, holding commencement in a church is obvious endorsement of one particular religion over another. Public schools are supposed to be a secular place of education and students graduating from these institutions should thus be handed their diploma in a secular setting. Commencement in a church, synagogue, mosque, or any other religiously affiliated space is unconstitutional as well as inappropriate in a society that is multi-cultural and multi-religious. This act violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. These are public, not private or religious, schools and are funded by the government. Hosting high school commencement in a location dedicated to a religious purpose is a blatant blur of church and state. The government is forbidden from establishing any particular religion, secularism is what is constitutional.

There are also perceptible social implications of holding high school commencement in a religious space. How would you feel if you attended a public high school and your graduation was held at a venue steeped in religious symbols and iconography? More specifically, what if you did not follow that particular religion or disagreed with its beliefs and teachings?

Staff attorney with the ACLU of Connecticut put it nicely when he stated, "regardless of intent, when schools host graduation at The First Cathedral, they devalue the faith of students and families in the religious minority." Some students and their families felt "unwelcome" during graduation ceremonies at the church because of the large presence of Christian symbols and iconography. In reference to one of the cases in Wisconsin, Americans United's Executive Director Barry Lynn remarked that "students literally [had] to walk up under a giant cross to get their diplomas." As an individual not of the majority faith, I would certainly have felt uncomfortable in this setting even if the ceremony itself was inherently secular and I knew that the reason for hosting graduation in a church was for practical purposes. I would not expect my public high school to host its graduation at my synagogue simply because it is only two minutes from the high school grounds and is large enough to hold all 210 graduates and their families. Further, I imagine students not of the Jewish faith would likely feel like an outsider in this scenario.

In a lawsuit in New Jersey, a Muslim student sued his public high school for unconstitutionally hosting his graduation in a Baptist church. he was unable to attend his high school graduation because "his religious beliefs prohibit him from entering buildings containing icons of God." In this case, a student who attended a secular, public high school was "forced to choose between honoring [his] education and [his] faith." This is a decision no student should have to make.

Hosting a public high school graduation in a church is clearly blurring the wall between church and state. The AU and the ACLU are correct in their argument that such actions are unconstitutional and definitely not secular. Holding such an event in a place of worship presents a variety of problems for religious minorities as well as other, such as the gay population. However, what if hosting graduation in a church or other religious venue is the most practical, least expensive, chosen by the student body, and/or supported by the majority of students and families in the community? Should exceptions be made or should this be an absolute ruling?

Cannabis Religion?

The question of what qualifies as religion has come up under many guises throughout American history. The THC Ministry and its followers are no different. A man from Boulder Colorado was pulled over for an expired license plate and was found to be in possession of marijuana. The police officer was obviously perturbed by this and put Trevor Douglas, 25, under arrest. This has not gone to court yet, but Douglas claims that since he uses the marijuana as a sacrament just like “wine and bread are sacred to Christians” he is protected by the first amendment. However, I have understood that the first amendment does not protect you from things that are in fact illegal. Now the THC Ministry’s website claims that cannabis is the original sacrament to basically all the known religions in the world and that they can provide legal defense for any sincere person over the age of 21. They say that as along as they do not sell the marijuana that it is within their religion. So, many questions are raised here. Can the sacrament of wine and bread and the sacrament of cannabis be compared? To be fair, the THC ministry does need for a sincere practitioner to be over 21, or living independently of parents or have parents written permission) and become ordained. One must get a Home Sanctuary Kit in order to become a full member, that includes legal documents proving that you are a sincere practitioner. It will be interesting how this one plays out. The wine and bread of Protestant Christianity are symbols and in Catholic Christianity have transubstantiated to literally become body and blood. There is no “high” being reached. Cannabis has different effects. On the THC Ministry website there is no procedural directions for how one must use the cannabis in a sincere religious manner. It seems that it is an attempt to make a loophole to be able to smoke pot without being arrested. “We use Cannabis religiously, and you can too” is the tagline of the website. It does not say that you have to give up any other religion. So what happens if a THC Ministry member is a member at a local Baptist church as well? Are you allowed to technically have two religious affiliations? How do we define a person raised by parents of two different faiths? Do they have to pick only one? I do not know the answer to that question. However, it seems fairly easy to obtain a Congregation Kit from the THC Ministry.

The Congregation Kit combines our Sancturary Kit with the following additions:

  • 1 Minister-size bottle of Holy Anointing Oil (Made prayerfully with the ancient and sacred recipe of Exodus 30:23)
  • 1 bottle Cognac and Cannabis Tincture (Made prayerfully with Grand Marnier and Chambord, both premium label French cognacs + an organic Hawaiian Cannabis flower bud.)
  • 1 bottle Sweet Cannabis Tincture (Non-alcoholic. Made prayerfully from vegetable glycerin + a premium organic Hawaiian Cannabis flower.)
  • 12 Practioner Kits

Congregation Kits are available for a donation of $1000. You may pay by personal check, money order, or through Western Union.”

That is from the THC Ministry Website. What does that say? There does not seem to be any necessary background checks. A minister of a Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc. congregation or gathering has to have some kind of education or at least background in the religion. This does not seem like there are any qualification except having one thousand dollars. However, one can go to Cannabis College to learn how to grow these plants more effectively for a one hundred dollar donation. Notice, neither of these amounts are fees. Again, does this count? It is difficult for me to consider a “ministry” that is unable to spell the word “sanctuary” or “practitioner” correctly on their website a sincere anything, except maybe sincerely stoned and unable to spell.

However the case of Trevor Douglas is decided, it is going to have an impact. What does it mean if he is found guilty? What does it mean if he is found innocent? I foresee very unhappy people either way.

The main questions in this case I think are “What is sincere”, “What do motives mean”, and “Can an illegal action be protected by first amendment rights?” (The comments to this particular article are if nothing else entertaining just for the record.) These are not knew questions. These same questions apply to the Pueblo Controversies discussed in Tisa Wenger’s book We Have a Religion. She talks about the “immoral” dances as well as the peyote controversies as well as all the prohibition against alcohol and risqué “white” dances. As well as can they be good Christians while maintaining their indigenous “customs”? Do we want our laws apply to everyone, or just the “other”? Who are we protecting and what are we protecting them from? And who is “we” and “them” and “other” and “us”?

I guess the cap-it-all question is “What exactly does religious freedom mean?”

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Questions Raised Anew About Religion in Military

Religion and the military are two words that do not go hand in hand at times. And in this article it seems that the age old adage still holds true. The premise of the article centers on how Christianity is being used as a tool by the military to help soldier’s combat depression. They even enlisted former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw who explained how he used religion to help with his depression. However, some people feel as though this has gotten out of hand and that the military emphasize less on the restrictions of religion, primarily Christianity.

For example, in 2005 at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs Colorado, a coach decided to put a banner in the locker room labeled “Team Jesus”. While the Air Force has claimed religious neutrality in these situations, complaints still come in about how the situation feels as if religion is being forced onto the cadets. Specialist Dustin Chalker from Fort Detrick, Maryland is a just one plaintiff of many in a federal lawsuit against the military which accuses them of ignoring rules banning mandatory religious practices. While there has been a gain in trying to take religion out of the military; advocates for religion feel that without religion, the military losses a spiritual essence in itself.

The big question this article looks at is basically a religion in the workplace type situation. On one side we have the advocates for religion who believe that they are just practicing their faith and causing no harm. However, the other side views this as an invasion of their personal space causing them to feel uncomfortable within their workplace. Another question this article brings is whether soldier’s feelings are taken into consideration

Once again many soldiers come from different backgrounds and do not practice Christian teachings. However, with most American soldiers practicing Christianity it can feel overwhelming to the minority. This leads many to feel underappreciated and when they try to find their own group within the military they always come up short. Finally, the last broad question that comes into play is the reason for the article i.e. the anti-depression video.

The anti-depression video is a thirty minute film that stars Terry Bradshaw as he explains how religion helped him fight depression. While the video purpose is to combat depression and suicide amongst soldiers it seems to imply that Christianity is the primary driving force to defeat depression. This not only alienates some of the non-Christian soldiers but probably raises their depression in the process.

In terms of my opinion I believe that the military and religion should be kept separate. Just like don’t ask don’t tell, religion should be kept to oneself and their personal deity. In the end, the problem will be pacified and nobody will feel as if one religion is being favored over another.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Minority Religious Groups: Is a 'Religious Test' Okay?

Generally speaking, it is usually religious minorities that are discriminated against, not the other way around. This article, posted on the Yeshiva World News website, explains the controversy surrounding a number of religious groups that have been accused of religious discrimination when selecting the leaders of their organizations. Stemming from a case at Hastings Law School in San Francisco, the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI) recently filed a legal brief in the United States Supreme Court “to defend the right of religious organizations to remain autonomous and to choose their members and leaders without being accused of engaging in religious discrimination.”

Hastings Law School has banned an organization called the Christian Legal Society (CLS), citing some of their practices as violations of the school’s policy on religious discrimination. Although this group’s meetings are open to all students, regardless of religious affiliation, obtaining a leadership position does not come without a religious test. CLS bylaws require “its leaders and voting members to be practicing Christians who abstain from intimacy outside of marriage.” Since the school does not officially recognize the group, CLS has been not been allowed to participate in school sanctioned activities, and has been denied the use of the school’s facilities and email system.

It is no surprise that there are a number of religious groups that partake in similar practices of religious discrimination when organizing themselves. And, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of Hastings, this sparked a great uproar among many such groups. In response, NYCI has joined forces with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty to file suit in the Supreme Court on behalf of a coalition of minority religious groups. Kevin J. “Seamus” Hasson, the president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, is quoted as saying “[i]n America, all faiths have the right to be who they are without interference from the government.” If the Supreme Court upholds the ruling from the Ninth Circuit, there will be some very important and detrimental repercussions for many minority (and possibly majority) religious groups throughout the nation.

There are clearly a number of issues at hand when the dust settles with this case. First, the situation specific to Hastings Law School is interesting, as it is a public school that receives money from the government. As we have already discussed a number of times in class, there are going to be some problems associated with government money being spent on certain religious groups (think Pagan Circles at the Air Force Academy). More importantly, though, is that the school has a strict open-member policy that states that anyone is entitled to be a voting or participating member in any group, even if they do not agree with the mission of that group. It is obvious that the CLS is in violation of the school’s policy, but is this policy constitutional? It is one thing to look at a situation like this that is tangled up in school rules, but what happens when we step outside the boundaries of education? How much of an impact will a decision in favor of Hastings have on private religious groups? Will churches and synagogues be forced to open the doors to their leadership to anyone and everyone?

It is my opinion that a certain level of religious discrimination is not only acceptable, but also necessary within a specific set of scenarios. Religious organizations should be able to use a religious test when selecting their leadership and voting members. NCYI President Shlomo Z. Mostofsky, Esq. says that a ruling like this could force the group to alter their century-old core mission. Isn’t that a pretty distinct infraction on the group’s ability to exercise their religious beliefs freely? He goes on to say that if the decision is upheld in the Supreme Court, “it will not be long before the Young Israel Movement will be forced to change its name to Young Atheist or Young Evangelical, and other Orthodox Jewish organizations will lose their identification as well. It is hard to imagine a legal rule that will be more destructive to Torah Judaism in the United States.” Obviously, this case is going to have profound implications for many religious groups for some time to come.

Monday, February 8, 2010

What is Past is Prologue: Faith's Case for Conflict

Recently, a Federal law was enacted that elevated crimes committed due to the victim's sexual orientation onto a higher plane of justice. This law, officially titled The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is not legislation that one would normally assume to be controversial. After all, what law-abiding, respectful citizen could possibly take umbrage with a law designed to crack down on those who commit violent acts in the name of a self-righteous superiority complex?

The Christian Right, is who - or specifically, the Thomas More Law Center of Ann Arbor, MI.

This article explains that the Law Center has filed suit against US Attorney General Eric Holder and claims that the aforementioned act is both unconstitutional and unnecessary. Their argument? That a law designed to limit the group's open bias against alternative lifestyles infringes on their First Amendment rights to freely exercise their religion.

As the article points out, there are a few problems with this argument. First, and most importantly, the law specifically provides for the protection of religious viewpoints, no matter how divisive or biased they may be. It also prohibits " prosecution based solely upon an individual’s expression of racial, religious, political, or other beliefs or solely upon an individual’s membership in a group advocating or espousing such beliefs." Therefore, the actual letter of the law makes it rather clear that no basic religious beliefs are being infringed, persecuted, or prosecuted with this law.

There is an interesting caveat, however. The law's wording also explicitly points out that "the Constitution does not protect speech, conduct or activities consisting of planning for, conspiring to commit, or committing an act of violence."

This leads me to one of two conclusions. Either the Thomas More Law Center has filed a frivolous lawsuit against legislation that they have not actually taken the time to read - or that they endorse speech, conduct, or activities that promote violent acts against those of the homosexual persuasion.

I cannot help but feel that the Center would distance itself hastily away from a public perception that the group advocates violence against those it feels are in the wrong. Why then make all this fuss over a law that does nothing but advance peaceful coexistence between differing groups?

Perhaps also the old worldview that "religious freedom" means "freedom to be a Protestant" is again rearing its head. After all, critics of this legislation are claiming that they are being silenced (when in fact no such persecution is taking place), while demanding that those who claim a different point of view be silenced themselves. One can only hope that the judge hearing this case will see that plain irony on the face of the Law Center's argument. Perhaps then one more voice clamoring for division based on faith will be put in their proper place: the dusty realm of the past.

**To see the full case argued by the Law Center, click here.**

Gay Marriage Puts Mexico City at Center of Debate

Gay Marriage Puts Mexico City at Center of Debate

As Mexican marriage law now stands, gay people have the right to civil unions, not marriages. While the government only legally recognizes civil marriages, not just ecclesiastical ones, this article deals with Mexico City’s new legislation allowing gay couples to marry and adopt children. As the law now stands, only the biological parent of the child is recognized as the legal parent. Mexico has a tradition of a rocky relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. Starting with the Constitution of 1917, Mexico has started to become more secular. The provisions of the Constitution were strictly enforced until around 1980 when the Church started to speak out. The Church became highly outspoken regarding its “eroded” legal status and called attention to major government corruption. With the Salinas government’s plan in 1991 to remove all constitutional restrictions on the Catholic Church the tensions between the Church and the government eased into a much more realistic relationship. However, some strains on the new relationship remained, particularly in southern Mexico in general and in Chiapas in particular.

Forceful disagreement with this new law erupted as soon as word got out. Mexico City is unique in its very liberal leanings, compared with the rest of Mexico-the city has legalize abortion past 12 weeks of pregnancy and has simplified divorce laws. In his final homily of the year, the Cardinal called this law an “attack” on the Mexican family, while President Felipe Calderon said “the Constitution defined marriage as between a man and a woman. Although legal experts refute his statement, his attorney general has filed a challenge before the Mexican Supreme Court, stating that the law breaches a constitutional clause protecting the family. Although Mexican families are torn apart from migration, experts say that the idea of the ‘nuclear’ family is still very important to most Mexicans. Mariana Gómez del Campo, the Mexico City leader of the president’s National Action Party, or PAN, said ““The same word cannot have two different meanings…it will weaken the legal definition of marriage” She also feels that there will be a negative effect on children’s rights, “one of their rights is to have a family…a child does not get to decide what kind of family it is.”

Mexico City’s mayor, Marcelo Ebrard is a social liberal hoping to run for the presidency in 2012. However, he may face some resistance outside of Mexico City, as the Catholic Church still has tremendous power in rural Mexico. Mexico City’s decisions have caused the Catholic Church to speak out-and even begin lobbying. This is significant because the Church has been careful to stay out of politics since their rights were fully restored in 1992.

The main issue here regarding religion and law is how much can lawmakers allow their religious beliefs to affect their policy-making? The President of the country is claiming that the constitution defines marriage as between a man and a woman, but most legal scholars in the country disagree. I think this is salient because Mexico is supposedly a secular state, and yet the President is allowing his religious beliefs to over-ride the laws of his country.

I think this issue is important because it shows that acceptance of gay marriage is clearly not just an American issue. Also, I think it relates to what we talked about last class in that while Mexico is a secular state on paper, the law in action is often much different. When the human aspect is added in, with firmly held beliefs significantly affecting their decisions, the letter of the law can often become very jumbled. I think Mexico is in a very interesting situation because the capital city has significantly more liberal political ideals than the rest of the country. It will be interesting to see how involved the Catholic Church becomes in this issue and what the Supreme Court rules in regards to whether the constitution protects only the traditional ideal of the family.

Is Abstinence Education More Effective than Safe Sex Education?

Both the NY Times and had stories this week on a study published in the most recent issue of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine claiming that abstinence only programs may be more effective than common safe sex programs at delaying middle school aged children from having sex. The study divided a group of 662 seventh and eighth grade African-American students in urban schools into four different programs. The programs included an abstinence only program, a safe sex program, a comprehensive program covering both abstinence and condoms, and a control group that offered general health information. The participants were polled two years after the program to determine if they had engaged in sexual intercourse. The abstinence only group proved to be the most effective with only 33% of the children having engaged in sexual intercourse. It was followed by the comprehensive program (40%), control group (47%) and the safe sex group (52%).

However, this abstinence only program was not the traditional abstinence only program that one might expect. It did not pressure the children into abstinence, but rather highlighted the ways in which pregnancy and STDs may interfere with the children’s life goals. The children were never taught to abstain until marriage, but rather until they were more mature. If children questioned the teacher about condoms or other forms of birth control, they received medically accurate answers.

Public support for abstinence only education has been a major issue in the American legal system for the past two decades. The American Civil Liberties Union has been involved in a number of lawsuits questioning the use of taxpayer money to promote religion and to disseminate medically inaccurate information. The Obama administration has just recently eliminated funding for abstinence only programs that promote abstinence until marriage, in favor of more diverse programs. Though the abstinence only program from this study does not promote religion, some religiously conservative proponents think that the results may be a step towards the revival of abstinence until marriage programs. This brings to light several questions. Should abstinence only programs such as the one from this study be allowed in public schools? Should abstinence until marriage programs be allowed in public schools? Where do we draw the line?

I believe that it is constitutional to allow “abstinence until mature” programs such as the one from this study, in public schools because they do not promote any religious beliefs. However, I do not think that the programs would be effective for children who have already lost their virginity. Therefore, I think that the programs should be restricted to middle schools in which a majority of the student population has not engaged in sexual intercourse. On the other hand, I do not think that abstinence until marriage programs have a place in any public schools. Though the programs may have a similar message to “abstinence until mature” programs, they impose religious beliefs on participants in a way that “abstinence until mature” programs do not.

Where do we draw the line? I think that it is constitutional to allow all sexual education programs that are medically sound and do not promote abstinence until marriage. Whether or not all programs that adhere to these criteria will be effective is another issue entirely.