Religious Freedom Under International Islamic Attack

September 4, 2008

Some American innovations are so deeply embedded in our psyches that it’s hard to imagine how any other country could forgo them. But reject them they do, and now the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) seems to be moving, with objections from around the globe, to further formalize U.N. resolutions against “defamation,” primarily against Islam. Critics have pointed out that the language gives further cover for the persecution of minority voices in already undemocratic and illiberal Islamic regimes.

“This [language] destabilizes the whole human rights system,” said Angela Wu, international law director for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm in Washington. “It empowers the state rather than individual, and protects ideas rather than the person who holds them.”

We don’t really have a culture war in the U.S.: we have a impolite scuffle, mostly exaggerated for the benefit of political fundraising. The real culture war is between the liberal West and theocratic/ideological regimes who enforce conformity in their societies with the threat of violence and persecution.


Public Support for “Fairness” Doctrine Disgusting

August 15, 2008

There’s just not a whole lot to say about it.

41% of Americans believe that the government should “require all radio and television stations to offer equal amounts of conservative and liberal political commentary.” Many even want to extend the doctrine, which would essentially enforce points of view on the listening market rather than letting listeners decide, on the internet, which is even more absurd.

I find this poll result almost as upsetting as the high number of Americans who believe in old-school creationism, or can’t find their own country on a map of the world.

It is hard to know exactly how people interepreted the poll questions. Perhaps they didn’t entirely understand what they were agreeing with: perhaps they only meant that they wished media sources as a whole were more balanced and thoughtful. I’m all for that. But the way to achieve it is by promoting, recommending, and endorsing with your feet those voices that take the time to find reason, evenhandedness, and balance.

Forcing by regulation show by show, site by site balance, on the other hand, is as silly as demanding that two people having an argument in person each give equal time defending the other guys position. The whole point of the liberal scientific method, the whole point of free speech and open debate, is that we hash things out in adversarial contest. It isn’t that we try to artificially create balance: we find it in the midst of neverending debate. It’s a collective, society-wide process.

The other faulty assumption I suspect is at work here is the idea that there needs to be “balance” across every single medium of communication. But there’s nothing wrong with the fact that conservatives happen to prefer radio, and liberals newspapers, and so on. The point is the views expressed and people’s free access to them, not how those views happen to be transmitted.


Defending Obama’s “Faith-Based” Funding Changes: Special Rules for the Religious?

July 7, 2008

I’m by and large indifferent to Obama’s promised expansion of “faith-based” funding, which like most government programs that target certain groups, is likely to boil down to patronage, just as it did in the Bush administration. Maybe he’ll do better, enforce some actual standards of quality and non-partisanship. In fact, given the outright disdainful incompetent way many of these programs have been run, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could do as badly. But politics has a certain gravity, not unlike economic markets, that quickly washes away one’s original intentions when it comes time to make policy. I can’t really celebrate or decry Obama on this stuff.

There are, however, some broader important church/state principles here, and a lot of people making arguments that I just don’t think hold water.

Most prominently, there’s the religious folks who are horrified that Obama is suggesting that they might have to play by the same rules as everyone else who receives government grants. The NYTimes calls it the “six little words” that threaten to throw a wrench into his overture to religious groups

Read the rest of this entry »


Warrantless Cell Phone Stalking: Can the Government Use Your Phone’s GPS?

July 3, 2008

Now here’s a really disquieting thought: virtually all new cell phones sold today have some form of passive GPS system (even if the phone itself doesn’t have features that use it). The ostensible purpose is for use in emergencies and 911, but information is information. And the result is that the government, at any time, without your knowledge, and apparently without a court order, can track your location via your phone: put a virtual tail on you.

You’d think that if the government felt it had the right to do this, it would at least inform the public of its new power. But despite ongoing suits by the ACLU and the EFF the government is still mum as to whether it’s done it… even though the documents uncovered so far suggest that they have.

But… I’m honestly not sure how I feel about this.

Kevin Drum discusses the issue here and here, and makes some good points. But he treats the idea that the government needs a court order to track people as obvious. I’m not so sure.

I do think Americans should have some expectation of privacy in their lives, and by and large, when the government wants to target them for any form of surveillance without their knowledge, a court should be involved.

I also think the legal issues over privacy are deeply muddled. The usual legal language used in this area is a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” But courts rarely mean that literally. There are many cases in which defendants pretty clearly did expect and fully believed that their was conduct was private, which should have made things an open and shut case. But often what courts really mean is “whatever reasonable expectation of privacy one might have if they researched the subject in depth.” On that score, the fact that most people don’t know that the government can use cell phone GPS’s to track them, and many don’t even know that their phones have GPS in the first place, will likely not count as a legitimate defense.

On the other hand, the information in question is collected by a private company, and all cell phone users implicitly agree to it in their service contracts. We might complain that no one really reads those darn things… but whose fault is that?

Once that information is collected, it’s no longer really the property of individual users, and if the cell phone companies want to create a database that keeps tabs on the location of every single one of their users over time… well, then can. And if they choose to hand this information over to the police…

The real problem here is that people are living in a world where technology is quickly changing what’s possible, but with very little re-examination of how that might alter the way we live, and what we demand from service providers and in terms of government legislation. And it’s probably going to take some scandals and crises before anything changes, and we as a society confront these sorts of issues head on.


Is Gay Marriage Posed to “Obliterate” Religious Freedom? Uh, No.

June 17, 2008

As wedding bells ring out in California, opponents of gay marriage are left facing a government and culture that are increasingly failing to take their warnings of impending social disaster seriously.

According to Dale Carpenter over at Volokh, the reason is plain and simple: critics of gay marriage have failed demonstrate that it will cause any tangible harm:

They have tried many harm-based arguments but so far nothing has stuck. Not “evidence” of social decline from Scandinavia or the Netherlands. Not polygamy. Not population implosion.

With that failure in mind, the search is on for some suitably scary gaypocalyptic scenario with which to shock Americans. And the current favorite is the claim, recently advanced by Maggie Gallagher and Marc D. Stern, that gay marriage threatens to destroy religious rights.

Argues Gallagher (who spend the first half of her article aptly demonstrating that she’s either ignorant of or oblivious to swingers):

Gay-marriage advocates are willing to use a variety of arguments to allay fears and reduce opposition to getting this new “equality” principle inserted in the law; these voices may even believe what they are saying. But once the principle is in the law, the next step will be to use the law to stigmatize, marginalize, and repress those who disagree with the government’s new views on marriage and sexual orientation.

Claims Stern:

If past rulings are any guide, it is religious rights that are likely to be “obliterated” by an emerging popular majority supporting same-sex relationships — and it seems unlikely that the California courts will intervene. That’s a shame.

But as Carpenter points out, these fears are dishonest on at least two counts.

First of all, what’s at stake in many of the “horror stories” these and other critics cite are the right of religious groups to discriminate against gay people in situations where the groups are either using government money, or some public assistance, for the relevant function. That’s a rather different matter than religious expression and core worship services themselves being targeted for obliteration or discrimination lawsuits. It’s an issue of a much smaller scope. It’s lame enough when religious organizations generally claim that they should not be taxed, since “taxation is the power to destroy.” But what these critics are essentially arguing that religion is in danger of obliteration unless it receives special, no-strings attached, taxpayer support and legal treatment for their charitable programs.

Secondly, the actual issue in all of these cases isn’t even gay marriage in the first place. Again, nearly every “horror story” that’s cited involves anti-discrimination laws proper. Gay marriage is irrelevant. Carpenter again:

Neither the viability of the discrimination claim nor the viability of the religious objectors’ desired exemption turns on whether the gay couple is officially recognized. In most of the cited cases, in fact, the couples’ relationship was not recognized by the state, but adding such a status to the cases would change nothing about their legal significance. The most egregious abuse of these examples to undermine gay marriage is the Catholic Charities case, which involved the application of a 1989 antidiscrimination law. That dispute arose because the Catholic Church objected to complying with the law for the first time only after gay marriage was permitted in the state. It was a fortuitously timed conflict for gay-marriage opponents given that the state legislature was at that very moment considering a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

In short, what Gallagher and Stern are really objecting to in these passages are anti-discrimination laws that have been around, in some cases, for decades. If they really oppose those laws, they are welcome to argue their case. In fact, they’re 100% right about some of them, in my opinion: I’m generally against all anti-discrimination laws that affect purely private businesses in any case (yes, even racial ones). But presenting these situations as if they are unique challenges that only now exist thanks to gay marriage is deeply misleading.

And if there really are any good reasons to see California’s latest newlyweds as portents of doom, they’ll have to be found elsewhere.


Uh, The Ten Commandments on Church Property is Just Fine, You Silly Billies

June 10, 2008

Moses Smash!Ed Brayton has noticed a truly batty story over at the bat-central vanity publication, WorldNetDaily.

For years, the ACLU has been consistently and rather politely explaining that our government is not the proper venue in which to endorse particular religious ideas… let alone to post a list of religious commandments in government courthouses. Naturally, for zealots who believe that no government function is complete without the showy stamp of their particular religious ideology, this principled position is quite frustrating. Also frustrating is the fact that U.S. courts have often agreed with the ACLU.

Enter “Project Moses,” the brainchild of anti-ACLU crank Joe Worthing. The aim of Project Moses is simple: do something that the ACLU is perfectly fine with, that they’d even defend in court as a constitutional right, all in the hopes of pissing them off. Hundreds of Ten Commandment monuments installed on church and private properties later, and so far, no luck.

And lest you think this is all about an innocent love for the Ten Commandments, rather than merely treating holy scripture as an extension of Worthing’s middle-finger:

One Nebraska city’s situation is a perfect example of what the organization wants to do: A citizen brought a complaint against the city government for a Ten Commandments monument hidden in a remote corner of a public park.

It was removed, but one of the Project Moses monuments was placed instead on a street front property. It happens to be only a few blocks from where the complainant lives, and he now has to drive within 15 feet of God’s Laws whenever he passes that location, Worthing said. (emphasis added)

Yes, yes, I’m sure the man is scared stiff of that the voodoo powers of “God’s Laws” (which apparently have an effective radius of only 15 feet) will like… uh, or something. And stuff. Doing what he asked (i.e. just to move the monument off government property) sure showed him!

It doesn’t matter how many times ACLU and other supporters of the separation of church and state explain that they are not trying to ban religion but merely to ensure that the government stays neutral on religious matters. Zealots like Worthing have simply bought into the misrepresentations and scare-tactics of the religious right without any reservation or skepticism. So much so that they’ve actually convinced themselves that they’re striking a blow against us by doing what we suggested they do in the first place.

Sigh. And you know that thing where people are so crazy that they start to sound like they’re in an article from the Onion? Yeah, well, we’ve got that:

“Christians [sic] schools, too, should consider the impact, he said.

Instead of having a cardboard cutout [of the Ten Commandments], how about a 900-pound stone monument in an entryway,” he said. “It’s something like 3,500 times a child will have to walk by that over the course of their grade school years. They just may be able to remember them then.” (emphasis added)

Yes, yes, in schools that generally require children to read and study the bible daily, where public displays of bible verses, prayer, and Ten Commandments already abound, slapping down another huge granite slab is what’s really going to tip the balance. It’s so crazy it just might work. Maybe they can put his Ten Commandments monument right next to the Ten Commandment monument they already have.

Dude, it’d be like, the Twenty Commandments! Let’s launch over it!

Update: In doing a bit of research, the only reference to a monument in a Nebraska city park I could find was the one in Plattsmouth. Unless there is some other high profile case in Nebraska concerning the Ten Commandments in a park, Worthing is either lying, misinformed, or this quote is from several years ago. After several appeals, the court in this case ultimately ruled that the monument could stay on public property.

Also notable in this case was the fact that the courts, which had originally protected the name of the man filing the complaint out of fears for his safety, eventually allowed the Omaha World-Herald to publish it. When they did so, they rather disturbingly included not only his name but also what car he drives, his license plate, his personal and professional details, as well as, charitably, listing the death threats made against him and his family.


Gay Marriage Today: Why Not Polygamy Tommorow? …Here’s Why

May 20, 2008

Advocates of gay marriage are often far too glib about their institutional goals. Myself included. We dismiss all sorts of slippery-slope and social fears as simply being based on bigotry (and perhaps we luck out there, because we often turn out to be right, even if it was just a knee-jerk accusation). But many of those fears do make logical sense, particularly when social changes are made by judicial rulings based on distressingly broad and unmoderated principles.

One of the most legitimate of these fears has always been that judicial rulings about gay marriage that are based on bare notions of equality and fairness would carve a path towards the legal recognition of, well, polygamy. And with a polygamist cult controversy still driving news cycles, and HBO’s Big Love back for another season, polygamy can no longer be casually dismissed as an esoteric issue.

That doesn’t mean, that it can’t be dismissed though. It just means that it’s going to take a lot of serious work and argument to do it.

And so, over at Volokh Conspiracy, Dale Carpenter has penned a must-read “Cliff’s Notes” version of some of the best arguments against the “gay marriage/polygamy” connection. Personally, I find them convincing. I’d appreciate any arguments concerning why I should not.

As to the recent California gay-marriage decision itself, I’m of two minds. It should come as no surprise that I like the result. But I also have very strong sympathies with the view that the judges in this case (most of whom were Republicans, by the way) are using methods that overstep important boundaries in our system of government.

On the other hand (again!), I have slightly less sympathy given the fact that people often write constitutional and legal language that claims to be based on lofty moral principles and language… but then whine when someone actually goes and takes those principles seriously, rather than merely conventionally. If you don’t want constitutions to be treated any differently than literal regulations and craven contracts of social convention, then don’t write them as if they were shining beacons of truth and justice.

For all the gay couples who will finally be able to codify their partnerships in the law of our society, there’s little to offer aside from congratulations.

Update: Over at Dean’s World, Dean links to law prof John Witte Jr. and his take on the issue. Among other things, though, Witte notes that one of the traditional reasons that polygamy has been verbotten in the West is that is “routinizes patriarchy.” I’m no women’s studies stooge, but that particular reason strikes me as a little implausible except as a very, very recent development.


Drugging Patients Against their Will: Doctors and Nurses That Need to Lose Their Licenses

May 15, 2008

The Washington Post released a story today concerning yet another a disturbing practice that our government has quietly added to its repertoire: drugging deportees against their will with powerful anti-psychotics such as Haldol… all without a court order. Citizens or no, this practice is simply despicable, especially the seeming causal regularity of it. Many former victims of the Soviet Union will remember its own draconian use of Haldol on political dissidents.

The sad fact of the matter, however, is that the legal status of this technique is ambiguous. But for the doctors and nurses involved in these cases, things are a little more clear: they should lose their licenses to practice medicine. Practices like these simply are not in compliance with the ethical standards required to practice medicine in this country. The article doesn’t name names, but they should be fairly easy to figure out via FOIA requests.


You Pay, They Pray: National Day of Exploiting the Government to Promote Sectarian Christianity

May 1, 2008

Today is the National Day of Prayer, in which our country seems to assume that religious people are incapable of deciding on their own when and how and with whom to pray without the direction and support of a worldly government.

Via Pz Myers comes word of exactly the sort of thing that happens when secular power gets involved in the promotion of religion: inevitably, only certain religions need apply:

They are also required to only allow Christians to run the show: “I commit that [National Day of Prayer] activities I serve with will be conducted solely by Christians while those with differing beliefs are welcome to attend.”

Auldrich has remained true to her pledge. “It’s a Judeo-Christian observance, and people of other faiths who ask about participating are encouraged to set aside their own day of prayer,” Auldrich told This Week Online in 2006. In other words, if you are not an evangelical, you can go hold your worship somewhere else.

Somehow, religion in our country managed to limp along until President Truman officially declared a National Day of Prayer. Phew! But it seemed that religion was still in such bad shape that it eventually also needed legislative action in the form of Ronald Reagan’s more permanent Day of Prayer solution.

Happily, this must alleviated the problem for most religions. But, apparently, evangelical Christianity is still in such dire straits that it needs some extra-special head-patting attention from Caesar in order to get on with its faith business.

Jews on First says the true meaning of the Day of Prayer has been lost. “What began as President Truman’s declaration of a National Prayer Day for all Americans is now excluding and dividing us on religious lines,” the group said.

Seriously though: why would anyone have ever expected anything different from anything involving the political process? As the founders realized, the practice of government is all about factions fighting for worldly power. It is a process that is both inevitably corrupting and rather obviously unnecessary to the free exercise of religion.

Congressional nonsense on the order of things like National Broccoli Week is silly enough (as the first President Bush rightly realized) without the government presuming to have any role to play in religious matters as well.


Why “Where is the ACLU??” Often Ends in Intellectual Tragedy (Islamic School Edition)

April 10, 2008

The ACLU is not a perfect organization (though given that they are not monolithic, it’s hard to generalize). But by and large, they have the right idea about religious liberty, especially when it comes to preventing governments from superseding the rights of citizens to observe or not observe whatever religion they see fit and protecting private religious expression from government interference.

Unfortunately, there are a whole host of (mostly) conservative bloggers out there who seem incapable of distinguishing government action from private freedoms, and who rather ridiculously assert that the ACLU is out to destroy religious practice, rather than protect it from the government. Of course, the big problem for such people is simply all the rather awkward evidence to the contrary. What’s a crank conspiracy-theorist to do?

Well, luckily, they’ve hit upon a stopgap defense mechanism: anytime they come across a potential infringement of free speech or religious expression, an regardless of how much time has elapsed, whether anyone has even notified the ACLU, what the actual facts of the case are, or even if some other organization is already providing counsel, they cry “Where is the ACLU?!!” The implication is, of course, that the ACLU is deeply hypocritical: that their conspiracy isn’t savvy enough to at least pretend to care about this or that free speech/religious expression issue.

The problem is that this rallying cry so often ends in embarrassing tragedy. The latest case in point involves an Islamic school, sponsored by the government, which has apparently been caught coercing its students to pray, amongst other things. Part-time culture-warrior William Wallace raised the predictable cry: Where is the ACLU Now?

Where is the ACLU? The ACLU was all over the Dover PA school district for merely suggesting that life might have been designed by some unidentified creator as a violation of the so-called separation of of church and state. But here in Minnesota, it is “halal” (kosher) to fund Islamic schools.

This righteous outrage lasted for precisely one day, until a commenter happened to stop by and link to a letter from the ACLU to the school, asking them to stop exactly the practices that Mr. Wallace was complaining about. Oops.

And if that weren’t ridiculous enough, the letter is nearly a month old. So it’s Mr. Wallace that’s late to game in condemning the school: the ACLU might well have run their own blog entry entitled “Where is William Wallace on this issue, hunh?!?”

Mr. Wallace’s response?

The letter you cite is very interesting, in that is very friendly. It is as though the ACLU wants to teach the school how to continue to be a public Islamic school.

I’ll analyze the letter in more detail later; might make for an interesting blog.

This is what’s known as “changing the goalposts.” First the ACLU was evil because it was supposedly ignoring the controversy as part of some crafty plot to promote Islam and destroy Christianity. But when that implication became both ridiculous and even anachronistic, suddenly the ACLU is instead bad because their letter warning the school to stop its unconstitutional religious endorsement doesn’t call Muslims enough racial slurs in the process, or something.

I almost can’t wait for Mr. Wallace’s ‘analysis,’ but I suspect it may be delayed until he finds some means to remove the egg from his face.

More: If you’re interested in a vastly more sane analysis of the Islamic Charter School issue, Hemant over at Friendly Atheist has the goods.