Thursday, February 26, 2009

Court Rules on Religious Displays in Public Parks

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a public park in Utah need not provide space for a religious monument reflecting the Summum religion. The case, Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, was brought due to the fact that members of the Summum religion wished to display a monument reflecting their religious beliefs; said monument would be in direct contrast to the park’s current monument displaying the Ten Commandments.

This case was brought under a First Amendment claim. However, unlike most cases dealing with religion, this case was brought under the freedom of speech clause rather than the freedom of religion clause. Justice Alito, writing for the majority, stated that the religious monuments in cases such as this are “best viewed as a form of government speech.” Justice Alito concluded that the Summum church’s First Amendment right to the freedom of speech was not violated, as the government has the right to choose what it wishes to say, and similarly what it wishes not to say.

Although this was a unanimous opinion, six of the Justices wrote concurrences which offered alternate viewpoints than that written by Justice Alito. One of the issues which concerned the other Justices is the apparent creation of government language which is not subject to First Amendment review. The Justices also differed in their opinions as to whether the Summum church could bring another challenge under the freedom of religion clause of the First Amendment.

Like many of the concurring judges, this decision is also bothersome to me as it does expand a government’s ability to seemingly bypass any First Amendment review. By merely calling a display a form of “government speech”, it would seem that a city would obtain support from this decision to prevent any monuments or displays that contradict the religious message of those in charge of the local government.

Also of issue is the seemingly blurred line of church and state. While the Supreme Court decision seems to argue that a monument to the Ten Commandments can be seen outside of a religious perspective, it is hard to be persuaded that these tablets, a very religious icon, can be seen any other way. To say then that a city can choose what qualifies as “government speech”, and such “government speech” seems to be tied to these religious displays, would seem to cross the line of the separation of these two institutions.

For the full article from the New York Times, click here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The President's Mortgage Modification Plan

Yesterday, President Barack Obama revealed what would amount to be “the largest federal foreclosure-prevention package in decades”. The plan would allocate more than $75 billion in aims of assisting U.S. home buyers in obtaining “more affordable mortgage terms.” The President’s plan would allow homeowners with little equity in their houses to refinance their mortgages, allocate funds to keeping a large number of homeowners out of foreclosure, and increase government funding of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The President assures that this program "will not rescue the unscrupulous or irresponsible by throwing good taxpayer money after bad loans." It will allow homeowners to refinance “at a time of historically low mortgage rates” “as long as their mortgage does not exceed 105 percent of the current value of their property.” The program would also create financial incentives for lending institutions to lower required payments, attempting to make the mortgage aspect more financially attractive than foreclosure.

As expected, many have come out with criticism of this plan. Many bring up the issue of how second mortgages will be affected and handled through this program. Also, many feel that for most lending institutions, any participation in this program would be purely voluntary. Although Bankruptcy Court judges will be permitted to lower the principal of the mortgage to that of the current market value of the property, the lending institutions will not be required do modify mortgages in this way. Other issues of concern include mortgages being sold into securitized pools and the focus on owner-occupied housing with little to no mention of investor owned property.

It is hoped that offering financial incentives to lending institutions would be sufficient to have them voluntarily work with borrowers, but anytime something is voluntary there is a chance that somebody will not participate. At the same time, the President cannot force banks to comply as that is beyond the scope of his power. I would suspect that allowing Bankruptcy Court judges to modify the principal of the mortgage loan would bring up similar issues of the court exceeding its power. With these issues, and the unresolved issues mentioned above, it is hoped that the criticism levied against this plan will be used constructively to shape a plan that will assist distressed homeowners as planned.

For the full article from the Washington Post, click here.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

An Alternate Take on Evolution in the Classroom

Paul's post from Thursday on Darwin's birthday and classroom approaches to evolution raises a lot of hot-button topics: public opinion on evolution; continuing battles over scientific curricula in public schools (and the freedom of speech/religion implications that are involved); and the relationship between faith and reason. None of these topics are areas of strength for me, but I want to generally discuss my thoughts and where I differ from Paul.

When we think of the phrase "culture wars," the two political issues most likely to come to mind are abortion and gay marriage. There's a good reason for that, considering the energy, finances, and polarization surrounding both issues; Proposition 8 in California continues to provide a strong example. Yet we often overlook public opinion on evolution as a significant part of the culture wars, which is a huge mistake. Paul cites recent Gallup and Pew Research Center polls where more than 40% of Americans favor creationism, which Gallup defines as agreement with the statement "God created human beings pretty much in the present form." The Pew Research Center indicates that these numbers (according to Gallup) have remained consistent for over the last quarter-century.

Historian Paul Harvey notes that "America has a very peculiar history with the idea of evolution," and public doubt about the validity of evolution is nothing new. But such strong poll numbers in favor of creationism--which also holds that the earth is no more that 10,000 years old or so--remains remarkable. In his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, historian Mark Noll identifies that evangelicals have been responsible for the rise of creationism since 1960, and that their efforts resulted in "one of the great innovations of recent evangelical history." Noll argues that after the 1961 publication of the seminal creationist text The Genesis Flood, evangelicals capitalized on several factors--including, most notably, the belief in a "simple" or "literal" reading of Scripture--to create a groundswell of support for the doctrine. Historian Ronald Numbers elaborates that by the late 1970s, creationist political advocates adopted the strategy of arguing for a "two-model" approach in public classrooms, one that would provide a "balanced approach" towards both evolution and creationism.

Though the Supreme Court banned such "equal time" efforts in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), creationists turned to the burgeoning intelligence design (ID) movement to advance their causes. Though prominent ID supporters such as Michael Behe have attempted to distinguish their work from creationism, evidence demonstrates that the two doctrines are intertwined. One example emerged in the hearings during Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005), which centered on the school board of Dover, Pennsylvania's attempts to mandate the teaching of intelligence design in its ninth-grade biology curriculum. The textbook that the school board chose for its biology classrooms, Of Pandas and People, was the first pro-ID pedagogical text of its kind. Yet the Of Pandas authors (Dean H. Kenyon and Percival Davis) "had originally conceived their book as a scientific brief for creationism," according to Numbers. Moreover, the plantiffs in Kitzmiller discovered that after the Supreme Court ruling in Edwards, Percival and Davis replaced the term "creationists" with "design proponents" throughout the book. An error in one of the newer drafts--"cdesign proponentsists"--became a key piece of evidence that helped lead to the ruling against Dover's school board.

Nevertheless, Numbers writes that the ID movement's " 'wedge' strategy"--as they exhibited in Kitzmiller--has "succeeded beyond all but their own expectations in convincing the public and press that a serious scientific controversy existed about the status of Darwinism." And journalist Laurie Lebo documents that it is this strategy that lies at the heart of Louisiana's recent "academic freedom" bill. The bill (and its use of the term "strengths and weaknesses") implies a "controversy" where there is none, scientifically speaking, and is intended to deceptively disguise the promotion of a religiously motivated and unscientific doctrine as a freedom of speech issue. This is where I would disagree with Paul. It's reasonable to expect classroom debates to exist along the lines of what Amy Harmon profiles for the New York Times from last August, where students grapple with understanding and accepting evolution. But when we legally claim that teachers are exercising academic freedom by officially debating evolution's "strengths and weaknesses" as part of a science curriculum, we are opening the door to violating church/state separation, bearing in mind that the current "alternatives" to evolution are explicitly religious in origin.

Besides its legal implications, I'll admit that this issue is a personal one for religious reasons. As a teenage member of a conservative Methodist church, I remember watching a video during our youth meeting on evolution. The video dramatized a scenario where, upon hearing her science teacher present the case for human evolution, a girl runs out of the classroom, protesting that she didn't believe in such a thing. The message was clear: Christian belief and evolution were antithetical to each other. Not caring enough to seriously challenge this view, I became a supporter of creationism, and wondered at points if humans and dinosaurs co-existed together. It took many years--and a shifting of viewpoints on several other topics--before I really accepted that theism and evolution, faith and reason, could co-exist together.

My story is hardly unique, of course; determining the relationship between faith and reason when it comes to evolution is a common difficulty for religious believers, and especially so for those from theologically conservative backgrounds. Creationism and ID, however, oversimplify this process to an "either/or" decision, where one must choose to be either on God's side or the side of secularism. Without going into a lengthy theological argument, this demonstrates bad faith as well as being unscientific. Noll is particularly unsparing on this point, bluntly stating that creationism has obscured clear thinking about "human origins, the age of the earth, and mechanisms of geological or biological change." As he elaborates, "... if the consensus of modern scientists, who devote their lives to looking at the data of the physical world, is that humans have existed on the planet for a very long time, it is foolish for biblical interpreters to say that 'the Bible teaches' the recent creation of human beings."

Across the nation, young high school students are sitting in introductory biology classes, encountering evolution for what may be--or is likely--the first time. From a legal standpoint, these students have the right to hear scientific truth from their teachers, to learn in an environment that is absent of religious motivations. From a religious standpoint, they deserve better outside-of-class help in determining how evolution will fit into their faith backgrounds than from reductionist and dishonest doctrines.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Celebrating Darwin

Today marks the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, famous for this theory of evolution. In celebration of Darwin’s birthday, people throughout the globe are celebrating Darwin Day, “a global celebration of science and reason”.

However, as most are aware, not all agree with Darwin’s theories and the teaching of evolution has continued to be a hotly debated issue in schools throughout the United States. According to a recent poll, 40% of Americans discredit evolution and instead cling to a belief in creationism. Scientists claim that there is no merit to these claims, and instead choose to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution, which they claim has the scientific backing creationism lacks. As such, issues often arise as to which a teacher is permitted to present in their classroom.

In 2005, US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled that intelligent design (creationism re-designated as to avoid religious connotations) is not science and therefore cannot be taught in public schools. However, last year, Louisiana passed what they term an “academic freedom” law. This law protects the teachers’ freedom of speech by allowing them to “discuss the ‘scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses’ of issues such as evolution.” Recently, bills have been introduced in Oklahoma, Alabama, Iowa, and New Mexico; similar bills have already failed in Florida, Michigan, Missouri, and South Carolina.

As a pure freedom of speech issue, I wholeheartedly agree with states attempting to protect such rights by allowing for classroom debates of evolution and creationism/intelligent design. Unfortunately, this topic also broaches the topic of the separation of church and state and directly affects how children are being taught and molded. In private schools, it is expected that students will be exposed to the topic of religion. However, as the Pennsylvania Court ruled, religion cannot be taught in public schools, and intelligent design certainly seems to approach religious teaching.

By Louisiana wording their law allowing teachers to “discuss the ‘scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses’ of issues such as evolution”, the state seems to create an ideal solution as long as the subject of God or religion does not come into play. All scientific principles are open for debate in scientific terms, and evolution is certainly not immune from this debate. Such open communication in classrooms would allow for different viewpoints to be expressed and allow for the furthering of a scientific education. In such debates, people could truly celebrate science and reason, which is exactly what Darwin Day is suppose to further. Unfortunately, other states at this point have not agreed with this viewpoint.

For the complete article, click here.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Considering The Long Civil Rights Movement and "Praying Away the Gay"

There is quite a bit to ponder from Joseph Crespino's excellent study In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution, which I recently finished reading. Crespino, an associate professor of history at Emory University, argues that Mississippi did not simply provide "massive resistance" against the civil rights movement, as we often believe. Instead, as he writes:

"...despite segregationist' popular pledges that they would never submit to racial integration, white leaders in the state initiated a subtle and strategic accomodation to the demands of civil rights activists and the federal government, one that helped preserve the priorities of white elits and that put Mississippians in a position to contribute to a broad conservative countermovement against the liberal triumphs of the 1960s" (4).

Crespino notes in his conclusion that there are several implications to this argument. One of the implications that stood out to me was how we should think about the time span of the civil rights movement. Just as it's easy for us to imagine Mississippi as being what he calls a "closed society" (one that was more racist that anywhere else in the U.S.), it's also easy to imagine that the struggle for civil rights ended in the 1960s, when segregationists in the South lost their fight against the Civil Rights Act and Brown v. Board of Education. Yet Crespino makes a case for " 'the long civil rights movement,' " a term he quotes from fellow historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall. In documenting Mississippi's racially charged "battles over access to schools, jobs, and political power" during the 1970s and 1980s, he argues that those battles "flowed directly out of civil rights battles of earlier decades" (276).

Crespino provides a good example of the long civil rights movement in his November 2007 article about President Ronald Reagan's infamous campaign visit to the Neshoba County fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The article responds to an argument between New York Times columnists David Brooks and Paul Krugman over the racial meaning of "states' rights," a term that Reagan used in the speech he gave at the fair. While Crespino criticizes Krugman for generally oversimplifying the role of racism in conservative politics, he also finds that Brooks' defense of Reagan is unwarranted. As he finds, "Reagan was content to let southern Republicans link him to segregationist politics in the South’s recent past." The reference to "states' rights" was a clear signal of support to Mississippi conservatives who had resented federal efforts to bring about school desegregation and biracial poverty programs in their state. To this constituency, the battle over political control of their state--and the civil rights that consequently remained at stake--was quite alive and well.

Admittedly, this is a very watered-down take on a complex argument, but Crespino's book and the above article are well worth reading.

--In her review of the Lifetime television movie Prayers for Bobby, Tanya Erzen (an assistant professor of comparative studies at Ohio State University) finds fault with the movie's good intentions:

"The film hews to the conventions of Lifetime, in which tragedy inevitably leads to personal growth. There are archetypal characters: the jock brother who makes gay jokes, the sinister psychiatrist, the judgmental minister from the Griffith’s church, and the sympathetic gay man with whom Bobby shares a drink at a dance club. It is a film designed to teach us a lesson about religious intolerance, but in doing so it reproduces the unspoken rules for rendering gay people sympathetic or likeable to a television audience: they were “born that way,” they never have sex, and, of course, they die tragically."

Erzen also writes that the "film’s response to the ex-gay argument that gay people can and should change is that sexuality is biological or genetic—a politics that grants full citizenship regardless of whether sexuality is immutable is illegible for the television genre." It's not all bad, as Erzen identifies the transformation of Bobby's mother, Mary (played by Sigourney Weaver), as "the most meaningful form of redemption in the film." But her critique is a timely one, and should force us to consider how seemingly positive representations of gay people can actually be stereotypical and deterministic. Erzen has written a book on the "ex-gay movement" within certain stains of conservative Christianity, and her 2006 interview with Terry Gross on National Public Radio's Fresh Air is a good introduction to her work.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Ethics and Octuplets

As reported in various news outlets this week, Nadya Suleman gave birth to octuplets – only the second reported case of live octuplets being born in the United States. At present, Suleman, a single woman, has not yet revealed whether the births are a result of artificial insemination or any details concerning the conception of the children. However, the possibility that a fertility doctor implanted Suleman with eight embryos is causing concerns within the profession.

Whether artificial insemination is performed in vitro or intrauterine, doctors typically only work with two to four embryos. American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) guidelines call for no more than two embryos for women in their thirties seeking in vitro fertilization. A spokesperson for ASRM, Eleanor Nicoll, stated regarding Suleman, “"It should not have happened. Eight children should not have been conceived and born."

The reasoning behind the ASRM guidelines centers on the health of the embryos and mother. Multi-birth pregnancies create a higher risk for premature labor and delivery. The developing embryos have a higher risk for brain injuries, underdeveloped lungs and intestines, and cerebral palsy.

The apparent violation of these guidelines gives rise not only to medical concerns for the children and mother, but also to ethical questions. Lawrence Werlin, medical director of the Coastal Fertility Center in Irvine, indicates that prior to artificial insemination, questions are asked of the woman regarding how long she has attempted to get pregnant and the existence of other children. Given that Suleman already had six children, Werlin states, “I can't believe that she came in and said to the doctor that 'I want eight more children.' I can't believe that. And if she did, I would say, 'I'm sorry, I'm not the person for you.'" However, it appears that somebody may have done just that, whether Ms. Suleman asked for only one more child or did in fact ask for eight.

David C. Magnus, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, states that current guidelines are not as strict as in some other countries, and use the word “should” in many places. Magnus states that the only true remedy for those affected for violations of these guidelines is tort law. As of yet, medical organizations have failed to tighten up guidelines and/or create additional remedies.

No matter what one thinks about Ms. Suleman, this event has definitely resulted in many people thinking about multi-birth pregnancies. No matter whether these people agree or disagree with the propriety of artificial insemination giving rise to such pregnancies, this Washington Post article raises issues that require resolution. As David C. Magnus states, the current state of in vitro fertilization is basically an unregulated marketplace; if this marketplace remains unregulated, "there will be abuses." Until Ms. Suleman tells her full story, many will assume that such an abuse may have already taken place.