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Jan/14

4

A Bitter Pill?

birth-control-pillThis piece is from the Guardian and it comes with some of the paper’s usual irritating baggage, but it is still worth reading as an examination of the factual background to the Little Sisters HHS case:

The ACA has a series of outs for religious employers who say medication like contraception violates their moral beliefs. It’s essentially three-tied: for-profit organizations have to cover contraception in their health plans; explicitly religious organizations like churches don’t have to provide contraception if they believe birth control is morally wrong; and religiously-affiliated non-profits that are neither owned nor controlled by religious groups do not have to provide contraception either, but they have to fill out a form certifying that they are religiously-affiliated, and then a third party administrator makes sure that employees can get contraception if they need it. The third-party administrator, and not the employer, pays for contraception coverage.

In the case that led Sotomayor to issue the injunction, an organization called the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged objected to the ACA’s contraception requirement. All the Little Sisters have to do is fill out a form and the organization will be under no obligation to pay for birth control for its many employees – which include home health aides, nurses, administrators and a variety of women who may not be Catholic or, like 98% of sexually active Catholic women, may choose to use a birth control method other than natural family planning – but apparently a form is too great an intrusion on their religious liberty….

The Becket Fund [a fund I note named after a priest ‘martyred’ for his belief in religious legal privilege], a conservative organization representing the Little Sisters, claims that the ACA restricts the religious freedom of the Sisters because the Sisters rely on a Catholic insurance company, the Christian Brothers Trust, for their company health insurance. The Christian Brothers Trust doesn’t provide coverage for hormonal birth control, IUDs or sterilization.

According to the Becket Fund, the Sisters are stuck between a rock and a hard place: they could continue to participate in the Christian Brothers Trust insurance coverage and refuse to designate the Christian Brothers as a contraception provider, which the Becket Fund says would result in ACA-related fines, or they could designate the Christian Brothers Trust to provide contraception coverage, violating both groups’ deeply-held religious beliefs. Alternately, they could drop health coverage all together, which would also put them at risk for fines. Or, they could ditch the Christian Brothers Trust and designate new group insurance coverage, which would cover contraception for employees without making the Sisters pay for or negotiate a single thing, but would again require them to fill out a form that supposedly violates their belief that employees shouldn’t be allowed to get contraception.

The Little Sisters aren’t paying for contraception even through a third-party-secured insurance plan; they certainly aren’t being asked to distribute it, and Catholic nuns aren’t being force-fed birth control pills. They simply have to sign a piece of paper saying they’re a religious group, and then turn to a third party to negotiate all the details….

[A]s it turns out, the Christian Brothers Trust insurance group can refuse to provide contraception and will face no fines or consequences. That’s because the Trust is a self-insured “church plan”, which means that the Little Sisters can designate the Christian Brothers as the third-party administrators, and if the Brothers still refuse to provide contraception coverage, the government can’t fine them. In other words: the Little Sisters can continue operating exactly as before, and nothing will happen….

Food for thought.

The court will decide what it decides and (not being too familiar with the constitutional case law) I have no opinion on how that could—or should—spin out, but, as a matter of commonsense and of basic equity (none of which, of course, need be particularly relevant where the law courts are concerned) it remains hard for me to see these rules as an assault on religious freedom. That the Roman Catholic Church has also long been a supporter of universal healthcare only adds irony—and a degree of insult—to the mix.

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Dec/13

10

Religious Freedom!

OmenI’ll admit it. This made me laugh.

The Guardian reports:

In their zeal to tout their faith in the public square, conservatives in Oklahoma may have unwittingly opened the door to a wide range of religious groups, including Satanists who are seeking to put their own statue next to a Ten Commandments monument outside the statehouse. The Republican-controlled legislature in the state known as the buckle of the Bible Belt authorised the privately funded Ten Commandments monument in 2009. It was placed on the Capitol grounds last year despite criticism from legal experts, who questioned its constitutionality. The Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit seeking its removal.

But the New York-based Satanic Temple saw an opportunity. It notified the state’s Capitol Preservation Commission that it wants to donate a monument and plans to submit one of several possible designs this month, said Lucien Greaves, a spokesman for the temple.

“We believe that all monuments should be in good taste and consistent with community standards,” Greaves wrote in letter to state officials. “Our proposed monument, as an homage to the historic/literary Satan, will certainly abide by these guidelines.”

And the little ones are not left out:

Greaves said one potential design involves a pentagram, a satanic symbol, while another is meant to be an interactive display for children.

For the children!

Meanwhile…

The Republican state representative Mike Ritze, who spearheaded the push for the Ten Commandments monument and whose family helped pay the $10,000 for its construction, declined to comment on the Satanic Temple’s effort, but Greaves credited Ritze for opening the door to his group’s proposal.

“He’s helping a satanic agenda grow more than any of us possibly could,” Greaves said. “You don’t walk around and see too many satanic temples around, but when you open the door to public spaces for us, that’s when you’re going to see us.”

The Oklahoma legislature has taken other steps that many believe blur the line that divides church and state. The House speaker said he wants to build a chapel inside the Capitol to celebrate Oklahoma’s “Judeo-Christian heritage”. Several lawmakers have said they want to allow nativity scenes and other religious-themed symbols in public schools. The Republican representative Bobby Cleveland, who plans to introduce one such bill next year, said many Christians feel they are under attack as a result of political correctness. He dismissed the notion of Satanists erecting a monument at the Capitol.

“I think these Satanists are a different group,” Cleveland said. “You put them under the nut category.”

Well yes, but…

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Dec/13

9

21 Years

Witchcraft_at_Salem_VillageWitch trials. Still with us.

The Guardian reports:

Dan Keller has left an Austin jail, a week after his wife was released – and 21 years after the pair were given a 48-year sentence for sexual assault during America’s “Satanic panic” era. Fran Keller, 63, was released on bond last week after the Travis County district attorney agreed that the trial jury was probably swayed by the faulty testimony of an expert witness.

To supporters of Dan, 72, and Fran Keller, 63, their 1992 trial was a modern-day Texas witch-hunt that recalled the hysterical delusions of seventeenth-century Salem. The fuse was lit in August 1991, when a three-year-old girl on the way to a behavioural therapy session told her mother that Dan Keller had spanked her at the preschool he ran with his wife in Austin.

The girl told the therapist that Keller had sexually assaulted her using a pen and “pooped and peed on my head”.
In subsequent months, two other children made similar claims about the Kellers. By the time the couple went on trial in November 1992, the allegations were significantly more lurid and involved allegations of ritual abuse, murder, dismemberment and animal sacrifice.

The Kellers were found guilty of aggravated sexual assault of a child, even though the three-year-old girl at the centre of the case recanted her claims in court.

The only physical evidence against the Kellers was the testimony of Dr Michael Mouw, who examined the girl in the emergency room of a local hospital after the therapy session and said he found tears in her hymen that potentially indicated that she was molested.

Mouw signed an affidavit last January in which he affirms that he now realises his inexperience led him to a conclusion that “is not scientifically or medically valid, and that I was mistaken.”

In an appeal filed on behalf of Fran Keller earlier this year, her lawyer, Keith Hampton, also argued that the state presented misleading evidence about the cemetery, relied on a false witness confession and the testimony of a “quack” satanic abuse “expert”, and that suggestive interview techniques had encouraged the children to make “fantastical false statements”.

According to police reports and trial records, the children said that Dan Keller killed his dog and made children cut it up and eat it, “baptised” kids with blood and disembowelled pets, forcing children to drink the blood.The Kellers were also said to have decapitated and chopped up a baby, put the remains in a swimming pool and made the children jump in. In one account, the Kellers were said to have stolen a baby gorilla from a park and Frances cut off one of its fingers.

The pair, who apparently liked to wear robes, were said to have dug graves in a cemetery to hide dead animals and a passer-by who was shot and carved up with a chain saw…

21 years.

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Dec/13

9

Something Rotten…

surrenderNick Cohen, writing in The Spectator:

Firoozeh Bazrafkan is frightened of nothing. Five foot tall, 31 years old, and so thin you think a puff of wind could blow her away, she still has the courage to be a truly radical artist and challenge those who might hurt her. She fights for women’s rights and intellectual freedom, and her background means her fight has to be directed against radical Islam. As a Danish citizen, she saw journalists go into hiding and mobs attack her country’s embassies just because Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of Muhammad that were so tame you could hardly call them ‘satirical’. Bazrafkan is also the daughter of an Iranian family, and the Islamic Republic’s subjugation of women revolts her.

When I met her, she was enduring a crash course in politically correct Europe’s many hypocrisies. White Danes reported her to the police for writing that Muslim men abuse and murder their daughters, and adding for good measure that the ‘Koran is more immoral, deplorable and crazy than manuals of the two other global religions combined’.

You could say that her remarks were offensive. You could say that the inattentive reader might just take them to mean that all Muslim men abuse and murder their daughters. But if every remark that someone might find offensive or misinterpret were banned, the human race would fall silent.

Liberal principles once held that the Danish state should only punish Bazrafkan if her words provoked violence. As it was, the court asked for no proof of actual incitement. (There was none to be had.) Instead, it acted as if criticism of religion — a system of beliefs which individuals should be free to choose and others should be free to criticise — was identical to racial prejudice, which all thinking people condemn because no one can choose his or her ethnicity.

The white ‘liberal’ judges therefore ruled that the Iranian-born artist was a ‘racist’ and gave her a criminal record for condemning honour killings and clerical misogyny…

And the story gets worse. Read the whole thing.

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Sep/13

28

“Religious Freedom”

Mark of the BeastReuters:

A Pennsylvania mining company sued by the federal government on behalf of a worker who refused a biometric handscan because he believes in the Bible’s mark of the beast prophecy, said on Thursday that it supports religious freedom.

The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission filed a lawsuit against Consul Energy Inc, stating that Beverly Butcher Jr. had worked at the company’s coal mine in Mannington, West Virginia, for more than 35 years, until he was required to use a biometric hand scanner to track his hours.

Consul, with headquarters in Western Pennsylvania, was accused of discriminating against Butcher, who repeatedly told mining officials that using the scanner violated his Evangelical Christian beliefs, given his view of the relationship between hand-scanning technology and the mark of the beast in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, the lawsuit said.

According to the Christian Bible, the mark is implanted on the forehead or right hand and symbolizes allegiance to the antichrist.

Well, of course…

The EEOC notes:

The mining [company] refused to consider alternate means of tracking Butcher’s time and attendance, such as allowing him to submit manual time records as he had done previously or reporting to his supervisor, even though the mining company had made similar exceptions to the hand scanning for two employees with missing fingers.

The EEOC is arguing that Butcher was forced to retire because his employer refused to accomodate his religious beliefs. The test is whether “the employer can provide an accommodation without incurring an undue hardship”.

We don’t, it should be stressed, know all the background to this case, but from the facts as presented here, it does seem odd that Consul was not prepared to be just a little more accommodating of someone who had been with them for a very long time.

Whether the company should be compelled to do so is an entirely different question.

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Jun/13

16

Rick Perry’s “Merry Christmas”

East 14th St, NYC (Dec 2011) (AS)MSN reports:

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday signed a law protecting Christmas and other holiday celebrations in Texas public schools from legal challenges — but also stressed that freedom of religion is not the same thing as freedom from religion…Dubbed the “Merry Christmas” bill, the bipartisan measure sailed through the state House and Senate to reach Perry’s desk.

It removes legal risks of saying “Merry Christmas” in schools while also protecting traditional holiday symbols, such as a menorah or nativity scene, as long as more than one religion and a secular symbol are also reflected.

It is, of course, sad and stupid that there can be “legal risks” associated with exchanging Christmas greetings in schools. If the new law fixes that, it’ll be all to the good, but quite what makes a “secular symbol” eludes me. I’m with the atheist shoemakers in Berlin who said this:

There are already hundreds of symbols for atheism and none of them tickle us in quite the right place… either they’re too sciency, or too literal, or just plain ugly… Well, our solution is inspired by a Christian friend (thanks Matt) who accused us of having god-shaped-holes. And we think a gaping, BLACK HOLE is absolutely perfect… And what says “I believe in nothing” better than nothing?

Quite. But it’s difficult to imagine a black hole nestling between the manger and the menorah. There is, however, another candidate, jovial, genially syncretic and refreshingly appreciative of the joys of consumerism.

Yup, Santa would do very well indeed.

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Jun/13

13

Symbiosis

Serebryany Bor, Mar 93 (AS)Vladimir Putin’s attempt to blend social conservatism and Russian Orthodoxy into the mix that is (nominally: the reality is rather grubbier) the ideology of his regime continues. The Guardian has the details.

First, we have an unpleasant piece of anti-homosexual legislation (in wording, context and intent far broader—and far nastier than the “Section 28” that was, to say the least, one of the Thatcher era’s less glorious achievements):

The law in effect makes it illegal to equate straight and gay relationships, as well as the distribution of material on gay rights. It introduces fines for individuals and media groups found guilty of breaking the law, as well as special fines for foreigners.

And then we have this:

Minutes after passing the anti-gay legislation, the Duma also approved a new law allowing jail sentences of up to three years for “offending religious feelings”, an initiative launched in the wake of the trial against the anti-Kremlin punk band Pussy Riot.

There ought, of course, to be no ‘right’ not to be offended. What’s particularly interesting about the latter law, however, is the way that it borrows from western neo-blasphemy legislation. Back at the time of the Pussy Riot trial, I noted this:

An interesting angle to this whole case is that the women have been charged under Article 213 (2) of the Russian criminal code: “hooliganism” motivated by religious hatred or hostility. The language of western political correctness, not to speak of Islamic efforts to suppress free speech, have, it seems, found an echo in Moscow, the Third Rome.

The echo is even louder now.

And while I am on this topic, I ought to mention that there was a spot of bother over at the Corner over the unfortunate (let’s be kind) intervention of a GOP congressman into the Pussy Riot controversy. My contributions to the fracas are here and here.

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May/13

25

Good News From Vermont

Cemetery, Milan, Sept 1988 (AS)Vermont may be a lefty sort of place, but occasionally it gets some things right. MSNBC reports:

After 10 years of emotionally-charged debate, Vermont became the first state in the country to pass a doctor-assisted suicide bill through the legislative process. Governor Peter Shumlin signed the “Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act” into law Monday allowing physicians to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to dying, mentally competent patients who want to end their lives. This would apply only to residents of the state.

“Vermonters who face terminal illness and are in excruciating pain at the end of their lives now have control over their destinies. This is the right thing to do,” said Gov. Shumlin, a Democrat.

Three other states have similar “death with dignity” laws on the books. Oregon and Washington enacted these laws through ballot measures. In Montana, a court ruling made it legal in 2009. Similar to Oregon and Washington, the new Vermont law provides built-in safeguards to make sure these patients meet certain requirements and that they are of sound mind. For the next three years, sick patients must formally make the request at least three times. And the patient’s primary care doctor and a consulting physician must agree with the diagnosis that the person is, in fact, terminally ill and able to make an informed decision. The Health Department will get reports from doctors on how many patients they prescribed lethal drugs. After July 1, 2016, Vermont won’t require as much monitoring and reporting under the law.

According to the AP, Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen estimated doctors will write between 10 and 20 lethal prescriptions a year, but not as many patients will go through with the process and actually take the lethal drugs…

Over at the Wall Street Journal Paul McHugh complains about this modest measure in an unconvincing article that is childish:

And then there is this talk about “death with dignity,” as the Oregon and Washington laws are titled. Surely what we want is “life with dignity.” Seeking life, we’re ready to endure much in order to keep it going. Think of the life-saving and life-preserving colonoscopy—all dignity drops with your trousers.

And comes complete with guilt-by-association:

For you see, the terminators ultimately are not merely interested in killing people who are suffering the throes of a final illness. They have even others in mind, as history tells us. The drive to allow doctors to “assist” in suicide is not recent. Its roots are in the Progressive era of the early 20th century, when many Americans placed utter confidence in reform and in technocratic elites. Then the enthusiasts for euthanasia lined up with those clamoring for government intervention in the name of eugenics and population control.

And, well, this:

Another argument for physician-assisted suicide is that many patients with cancer live too long in pain. The suffering could be reduced if their legitimate wish for death were fulfilled. These are the arguments pressed by Dr. Timothy Quill and many in the Oregon “death with dignity” group.

But scientific publications from oncologists such as Kathleen Foley, who studies patients with painful cancers, reveal that, quite to the contrary, most cancer patients want help with the pain so they can continue to live. Suicide is mentioned only by those patients with serious but treatable depressive illness, or by those who are overwhelmed by confusion about matters such as their burden on loved ones and their therapeutic options. These patients are relieved when their doctors attend to the sources of their psychological distress and correct them.

The simple (and encouraging) answer to that is that a huge majority of cancer patients do indeed choose to live on, and, yes, proper counseling and treatment for depression can encourage them to make that choice.

That said, there are doubtless some terminal patients who—quite rationally—decide that enough pain is enough, and that it’s time to move on. The Vermont law will help some such individuals reassert, one last time, control over the lives that are theirs, and theirs alone.

In a 2002 New York Times piece, Dr. McHugh (a Roman Catholic) was described as “religiously orthodox, politically liberal (he is a Democrat) and culturally conservative”. The latter is an infinitely debatable term. If we look, however, at the other two attributes listed– religious orthodoxy and political liberalism—it’s not hard to see why respect for individual liberty ranks so very low on his list of priorities.

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Feb/13

23

Making Friends and Influencing People

Travis HoldmanThe Indianapolis Star reports:

Women obtaining an abortion-inducing drug would be required to undergo an ultrasound before and after taking the drug under a bill approved Wednesday by an Indiana Senate committee.

Though the bill doesn’t specify that it be a transvaginal ultrasound, in which a several-inch-long probe is inserted in the woman, that’s exactly what Indiana would be requiring, said Dr. John Stuts­man, an Indiana University School of Medicine professor and obstetrician-gynecologist.

The provision is included in Senate Bill 371, which also would require any clinic that dispenses the drug — known as RU-486 — to meet the same requirements as a clinic that performs surgical abortions, though physicians’ offices would be exempt.

Those requirements, opponents say, potentially would force the Planned Parenthood clinic in Lafayette to close. That clinic offers the abortion pill but does not perform surgical abortions. If the bill passes, the clinic would have to widen hallways and doorways to meet state specifications for surgery and install anesthesia, surgical and sterilization equipment.

Sen. Travis Holdman, the Markle Republican who authored the bill, said the measure is intended to ensure women’s safety. Pushing back against senators who questioned why the heightened standards applied only to RU-486 and not to other prescription medicines dispensed in clinics, Holdman said abortion is different…

And yes, that’s a non-sequitur.

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Jan/13

29

First Amendment, Second Amendment

The Economist picks up on this letter from 64 Roman Catholic theologians in favor of gun control.

With so much talk of late of the supposed attack on religious freedom represented by Obamacare’s contraception mandate, this passage caught my eye:

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently renewed their call for measures to address gun violence by echoing their 2000 statement, Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice. Bishops have called for “measures that control the sale and use of firearms” and “sensible regulations of handguns.” The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in a 1994 document, “The International Arms Trade,” urges political leaders “to impose a strict control on the sale of handguns and small arms” and states that “limiting the purchase of such arms would certainly not infringe on the rights of anyone.”

Well, it’s good to know where people stand.

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