Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Muslim Judge Thows Out Case on Attack of Man Dressed as Zombie Muhammad

This past Halloween in the city of Mechanicsburg, PA, a parade was held where people could dress in costume.  A group called the Atheists of Central Pennsylvania decided to attend with costumes that included a zombie Pope and a zombie Muhammad.  Talaag Elbayomy, a Muslim spectator, was offended by the zombie Muhammad costume, worn by Ernie Perce, and physically attacked Perce.  Elbayomy stated that he felt compelled to “do something” because he believed that to have Muhammad depicted as a zombie was a crime.  Both Perce and Elbayomy filed reports against each other to the police, but only Elbayomy was charged with harassment.  The case was seen in District Court with Judge Mark Martin who dismissed the case against Elbayomy and called the victim a “doofus.”  The judge, who according to the article has served several times overseas in the Middle East, stated that if this incident had taken place in the Middle East, Perce would have been the criminal and put to death.

Another article (disclaimer: there is a picture of Perce in costume in this article) notes that Judge Martin recently converted to Islam and stated during his ruling: “I think our forefathers intended that we use the First Amendment so that we could speak what’s on our mind, not to p*** off other people and cultures, which is what you did…You are way outside your bounds of First Amendment rights…You’ve completely trashed their essence, their being.  I’m a Muslim.  I find it offensive.”

As Judge Martin states above, this is a case about the First Amendment, both in freedom of speech and freedom of religion.  Perce believed he had the right to express his opinions in whatever fashion he wanted and that by dressing up as a zombie Muhammad he was expressing his freedom of speech.  Elbayomy, on the other hand, believed that he had the right to defend his beliefs by attacking someone offending his faith.  Because Muslims believe that there should be no images of Muhammad, Perce was insulting Elbayomy, the Muslim faith, and the memory of Muhammad by portraying a zombie Muhammad.  However, is a physical attack justified by the offense?

While I am sympathetic to Elbayomy’s view and consider a zombie Muhammad (or any zombie religious figure) blasphemous, I do not agree with the actions of the court.  Yes, what Perce did was offensive and he probably should have respected the beliefs of others when deciding on a Halloween costume.  However, he broke no laws (national, state, or local) when he dressed in his costume.  He has the right to express himself in whatever fashion he feels appropriate as long as it does not violate any laws.  Elbayomy was offended by Perce’s costume but that does not give him the right to attack another in anger.  There are several legal, non-violent alternatives that Elbayomy could have utilized instead of attacking Perce.  The legality of an action is not a judgment on its tastefulness.  Just as the Westboro Baptist Church is within their rights to picket funerals, which many find distastful, Perce is within his rights to dress up as a zombie Muhammad.  And, as we have seen in court cases such as Reynolds v United States, 98 U.S 145 (1878) (in which it was determined that even though polygamy was considered a religious duty to those of the Mormon faith, that did not mean that federal laws could be broken in the name of religious freedom), Americans have the right to believe whatever they want, they just may not have the same right to act in whatever way they want.  Elbayomy may not believe that what Perce did was correct, but that does not mean he had the right to act in the way he did.  Judge Martin’s ruling is favoring Islam by throwing out the case, and that is unconstitutional according to the First Amendment which does not allow for the government to favor or disfavor “one view of religion over another.”

Monday, February 20, 2012

Romney Polygamy Family Tree

While Mitt Romney may disagree with the practice of polygamy and its practice by his prior church, polygamy seems to be very prominent in the Romney family tree. Romney ancestors did not only practice polygamy but endorsed it. Mitt Romney’s great-great grandfather Parley P Pratt had twelve wives and in 1852 sermon his brother Orson Pratt, “became the first church official to publicly proclaim and defend polygamy as a direct revelation from God”.  Romney’s great grandfather Miles Park Romney had 5 wives and he married the fifth one in 1897, after LDS church banned polygamy 6 years ago in 1891 and a federal law which banned the practice three decades earlier. Romney father, George Romney, former Michigan governor, who was born in Mexico, were church members who fled in the 1800’s after US law banned polygamy and to escape religious persecution. The Romney family did not return to the United States until 1912, “more than two decades after the church issued "The Manifesto" banning polygamy”.  While reading this family history, one realizes how much prominent polygamy was in the Romney family during Miles Park Romney and Parley Pratt’s time. 

It seems like generation after generation, they were all polygamist until the church banned it and US law prohibited it, polygamy started to fade away slowly from their lives.  The founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph smith, had 33 wives and Brigham young, the guy who expanded the church from Midwest to Utah had 55 wives.  Smith’s repeatedly said the God authorized polygamy. That is a big issue, if this is not inequality, then what is?  A Man having 33 wives and 55 wives respectively, in my opinion is just cruel, unfair, and it degrades women. What makes men so superior than women and why were they the only ones allowed to practice polygamy and why couldn’t the women marry different men? 

Remember the court case?, Reynolds vs. Unites States, where the court found that laws banning polygamy were constitutional and did not violate the Mormons right to free exercise of their religion. I believe that court made the right decision because freedom of religion is not greater than the law of the land. 

As a part of activity we did in class the other day, I was part of “Protecting Mormon Women’s rights”  group , and after reading this article I have a witness and I would like to make a case against the church leaders and other various for-polygamy groups. The witness in this case is Hanna Hood Hill, Miles Park Romney’s (great-grandfather) first wife and our presidential candidate, Mitt Romney’s great- grandmother.  In her biography she stated “I felt that was more than I could endure, to have him divide his time and affections from me. I used to walk the floor and shed tears of sorrow. If anything will make a woman's heart ache, it is for her husband to take another wife. ... But I put my trust in my heavenly father, and prayed and pleaded with him to give me strength to bear this great trial." This statement above, clearly shows that pain of Mormon women, who had to endure watching her husband with several other women, and were not for-polygamy, rather were opposed to it.  They may have been forced to practice polygamy, but that didn’t mean they believed in it and it is a clear example of male domination over women.  While Romney has said on several TV occasions that he believes a "marriage is between a man and a woman ... and a woman and a woman”, while his views may have changed over the years, but we still haven’t forgotten the history.

Implications of President Obama's Contraception Policy

In response to President Obama’s compromise, which lifted the obligation of providing free contraception off of religious institutions and placed it on insurers, several church officials met with members of congress in order to discuss the implications of such a policy. The clergy in attendance addressed the insufficient appeal of President Obama’s proposed compromise. According to the religious institutions, the limited exception failed to address the main point of their opposition. Although the new policy would not oblige religious institutions to directly finance the contraception services, the moral implications of offering it through insurance companies would still lie on the employers. This means that with the new policy in effect, employers are still required to offer insurance plans explicitly contradictory to the doctrine they preach. According to a rabbi in attendance, “Religious organizations would still be obligated to provide employees with an insurance policy that facilitates acts violating the organization’s religious tenets”.

A Catholic reverend in Massachusetts addresses the issue of contraception and clearly states the church’s opposition to it. Reverend Roger J. Landry employs Pop John Paul II’s sermons on intercourse which discuss the complete devotion of oneself in exchange for another’s love. Landry goes on to describe the exploitation which can occur when the purpose of intercourse is not of a reproductive nature, but pleasure. According to the priest, “When that petition is made for contraception, it’s going to make pleasure the point of the act, and any time pleasure becomes the point rather than the fruit of the act, the other person becomes the means to that end”. Although many, including other Catholics reject his explicit opposition on the basis that it is oppressive to women, he explains that by refusing contraception and using intercourse strictly as a means for reproduction, the use of women for sexual pleasure becomes eliminated.

Despite the doctrinal differences among them, all of the clergy in attendance were opposed to Obama’s policy on contraception. All parties involved in this issue seem to agree that the policy is a bold move by Obama in the political arena. According to some, the policy is Obama’s way of increasing abortions and contraception while others claim the church is acting in accordance with an age old intention of oppressing women. Although both are certainly possibilities, the moral implications of the policy will probably be milder than either case is arguing. Those who staunchly oppose preventive medicine do not do so because of its limited availability, and so will not become suddenly supportive of it after this policy is put into action.

Clearly the institution of the policy would be imposing on the rights of the religious institutions. By requiring employers to offer services, however indirectly, which are contradictory to their doctrine, the state is forcing the institutions to act against their religious beliefs. However, if the policy does not go into effect, the legislation would be bending to the rights of the institution over the rights of the individuals. The larger issue at hand seems to be who to cater to. The rights of the individual have always seemed to take priority over those of possibly oppressive institutions in our nation’s history. In accordance with this, the legislation of this country has never seemed to bend to church doctrine in the past. The trend of increased individual rights is not likely to cease, despite the threat of secularism in the nation. The freedom to choose is essential to the American individual, despite how that may oppress larger institutions.

Opponents to Obama's Medical Mandate Already Lining up in Court

As President Obama's new medical mandate regarding contraception is becoming more and more of a eventual reality, the Justice department is "urging judges to stay out of the controversy until a compromise can be worked out." According to the article, the Justice Department has made it clear that the requirements for the mandate do not become effective until next January, giving the Obama administration ample time to try to satiate the opponents of the mandate. These remarks by the Justice Department come on the heels of the news that Belmont Abbey College, a "Catholic-affiliated liberal arts institution," has already sued on the grounds that "it should not be obligated to provide such services in violation of its religious beliefs. 

There are two very important points regarding the "contraception controversy" in this article. First, the Obama administration has conceded that Belmont Abbey and other institutions may be exempt under a "grandfather" clause, similar to protections granted from an ex-post facto law. This would allow any established Catholic institution to bypass the mandate, but any new or start-up institutions would have to comply, regardless of religious affiliation. Secondly, the Justice Department has stated that institutions such as Belmont Abbey do not have standing to sue, because the mandate has not been in put into effect yet. This is consistent with previous legal precedents that require that the plaintiff to have been actually harmed by a law before they can sue to have it declared unconstitutional. However, the issue of standing is a complex one, and in the U.S. standing can be granted to a plaintiff that can demonstrate that they have been or will imminently be harmed by a law. The question this raises is the legal relevance of the word "imminently" in relation to Belmont Abbey's case. If the regents of Belmont Abbey believe that the contraception mandate will harm their institution, is next January not "imminent" enough that they should be granted standing? This may be a defense that Belmont Abbey can raise if they want to challenge the mandate sooner rather than later. Either way, the role of the courts in this controversy is far from over. 

These two points give the Obama administration valuable ammunition in the negotiations that will inevitably happen between now and and January 1st of next year. However, despite the fact that the Justice department has asked federal judges not to get involved, I think they would be in dereliction of their duty if they did not take Belmont Abbeys case if the college is found to have legitimate legal standing. Even if the Obama administration believes that Belmont Abbey does not have standing to pursue a case it is of little importance, as it is for the courts and judges to decide if they have standing. No judge has ruled yet that Belmont Abbey has standing, but it could happen in the near future. What do you think? Should Belmont Abbey be granted standing? Should they be allowed to be "grandfathered" in when the mandate takes effect? Please share some of your thoughts.

Mormon Church in Hot Water over Proxy Baptisms

The Mormon Church has recently come under fire by Jewish activists and Holocaust Survivor advocacy groups for violating the 1995 agreement promising to halt the proxy baptisms of deceased Jewish Holocaust victims and remove their names from the Church’s genealogical records. Despite the enormous public relations effort of the recent I’m a Mormon campaign aimed at presenting a more diverse and more mainstream image, the Mormon Church suffered a setback last week as reports surfaced that the Church had performed proxy baptisms for the deceased parents of famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Jewish leaders and activists, including Elie Wiesel, have called upon the Mormon leadership to condemn the baptisms and publically recommit to honoring the 1995 agreement.

Proxy baptism, also known as baptism for the dead, is a religious ritual of the Mormon Church that has been a tenet of the faith since its earliest days, when it was introduced by Joseph Smith. While considered a mysterious and peculiar concept by many non-Mormons, proxy baptism serves an important theological function in a Church that sees itself as the instrument of a universal message of salvation. According to Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com’s Religion Editor, proxy baptisms are carried out in the Mormon Church as a way to ensure that those who do not get a chance to hear the message of Jesus Christ in this life can choose salvation in the next life. Church members are encouraged to participate in proxy baptisms and contribute names of deceased relatives to the Church’s genealogical registry. As Gilgoff notes, while it is difficult to precisely calculate the number of proxy baptisms that have been performed in the Church’s history, experts estimate that millions of deceased persons have been baptized posthumously.

Critics of the practice argue that proxy baptisms are disrespectful to the deceased person and his or her family, especially when the baptism takes place without the permission of the family, as was the case for the Wiesenthal family. Mormon leadership encourages members to offer only names of deceased relatives in order to curb the frequency of proxy baptisms performed without familial consent. For Jewish families, the concern goes much deeper, as many worry that proxy baptism threatens the historical recognition of the Jewish identity of the deceased by future generations.

Some Jewish leaders have expressed concern that the 1995 agreement holds no promise that the Mormon Church will actually desist in performing proxy baptisms on Jewish Holocaust victims. If the 1995 pact is deemed insufficient, it is possible that Jewish advocacy groups may turn to the law, specifically First Amendment protections, as a way to prevent the continued proxy baptism of deceased Jews. I believe that the Jewish community can make a case for a legally-binding injunction prohibiting the proxy baptism of deceased Jewish persons on the grounds that the proxy baptisms represent an infringement on the Jewish communities free exercise of religion in maintaining their particular religious beliefs on burial and proper treatment of the deceased. As Wiesel states in an interview with CNN, Jewish religious custom demands that the deceased person is not to be disturbed, a prohibition with could conceivably be extended to the memory of the deceased and not just the physical body. If the Jewish community could successfully argue this point, there might be legal standing to argue that the Mormon religious ritual of proxy baptism is directly infringing on Jewish burial customs.

A legal battle could be an interesting test case for seeing how the courts would rule when there are two competing and legitimate arguments for free exercise of religion. If, as the courts did in Reynolds v. United States (1878), the free exercise of religion is deemed to extend only to belief and not to actions, the courts could rule that, while the Mormon Church has the right to believe in the necessity of performing proxy baptisms for all persons regardless of religious affiliation, the Church might find itself being legally prohibited from actually performing proxy baptisms on deceased Jewish persons.

This issue raises serious questions about the viability of ensuring the free exercise of religion in a radically pluralistic society such as the United States. In my opinion, allowing for the prohibition of the practice of a deeply held religious belief constitutes a serious legal redefinition of what it means to be religious and severely restricts religious expression to the private and internal. As we have seen in the aftermath of the Reynolds case, prohibiting the practice often results in a change or loss of the associated belief. Yet, I think that religious communities that want to be full participants in American society should take a proactive stance in at least attempting to ensure that their religious practices are not insensitive or coercive towards others, rather than waiting for a legal ruling to force their acquiescence and compliance. It is unfortunate and disappointing that a religious tradition can feel justified in willfully engaging in a practice that is disrespectful to another group, as is the case in Synder v. Phelps (2011), when the Supreme Court ruled that the religiously-motivated picketing of funerals by Westboro Baptist Church is a constitutionally protected form of free speech even thought it caused significant emotional trauma for the families of the deceased. It is my opinion that, while there might be a guarantee to freedom of speech or exercise of religion, this does not mean the religious community in question should feel morally justified in engaging in that constitutionally protected behavior. I believe it imperative that the Mormon Church take significant steps to ensure that the event in question never again occurs and work to strengthen its relationship with Jewish communities forged in mutual respect and understanding.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Headley v. Church of Scientology

In an article posted on Courthouse News Service, the details of the Headley v. Church of Scientologycase are discussed, bringing up serious issues regarding the government’s role in regulating a religious organization’s practices.  Husband and wife Claire and Marc Headley are bringing two separate cases against the Church of Scientology for forced labor, a case that if won could mean a rejection of the ministerial exception established in the First Amendment. 

The Headleys claim that they were members of the Church of Scientology’s Sea Org for nearly 15 years, during which time they were prohibited from having children and were forced into having two abortions.  Claire Headley claimed that individuals who left the church were threatened, coerced to return, and deprived of food and water in addition to other punishments.  Marc Headley claims to have experienced physical abuse from other ministers at the church and that the church threatened he would not be able to leave the church without first going through a “routing out” process in which he would perform labor without pay. 
The Headleys first attempted to sue the Church of Scientology in 2010 based on the terms of Trafficking Victims Act which “prohibits…obtaining the labor or services of a person by means of force, threats of force, physical restraints, or threats of physical restraint to that person or another person” (US Dept. of Justice).   Their attempt was unsuccessful, deemed by the courts to fall under the ministerial exemption provided by the First Amendment.  Thus, the Headleys, as ministers in a religious organization were incapable of filing a civil rights case against their employer.  Now, the Headleys are appealing that decision. 
However, this case is about more than simply the Headleys’ claim of involuntary servitude.  It is yet another example of the government’s role in regulating the practices of religious organizations.  While the ministerial exception allows religious institutions to conduct their organization without government interference, individual constitutional rights are also at stake here.  As we’ve seen in other cases in US history, the government has long been caught between these two positions-that of ensuring civil rights and protecting the freedom of religious organizations.  Recalling the Reynolds v. United States (1879) case, the court ruled that one’s religion cannot excuse his actions or practices.  To do so, according to the court, would be to be set religious law above the law of the land.  In other words, a religious organization can believe what they want, but when the actions and practices are “subversive of good order” the courts can regulate that activity. 
Thus, it would seem that in the Headley’s case the government should step in to prevent the subversive actions of the church.  Laws meant to protect the freedom of a religious organization to hire upon their own discernment should not interfere with the ability of individuals to file a civil liberty case against his/her employer.  Religious freedom should not come at the price of an individual’s first amendment protection under the law.