Sunday, September 27, 2015

Petition the University of Warwick students union

Update: The Warwick SU now says they made a mistake and they apologized to Ms. Namazie who apparently had consulted with lawyers to discuss the feasibility of taking legal action against the student union or the university.

The Warwick Students Union made a pusillanimous decision to bar Maryam Namazie from giving a talk on campus to Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists, apparently because her apostasy offends some Muslims.  For those unfamiliar with Maryam, she is a secularist, a human-rights campaigner, a voice for reason, and leader of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain.  There have been a string of such ugly double standard decisions over the past year by various university organizations in multiple different countries to refuse speakers who abandoned Islam.  People who abandoned Judaism, Christianity, or any other religion are never rejected as speakers by these same university organizations.  Tell the student union that they should not be coddling people who hold their religion to be sacred by forbidding speakers who reject religions as false and harmful.

This policy has the pope's blessing

Advocacy emails, blogs, articles, web sites, petitions, by the hundreds are citing statements by the Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God.  He is often referred to as the Holy Father by other Catholics,  but we non-Catholics more often refer to him simply as the Pope (a colloquial substitute for the Latin word for father). He tells us that we should welcome refugees, protect the environment, abolish the death penalty, equalize income, stop manufacturing and selling weapons, etc.  Congress recently listened to him speak at the invitation of the Catholic Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Good policy needs champions and bad policy needs opponents.  Yet a policy is not good because someone supports it nor bad because someone opposes it.  Pope Francis must make the argument for why any policy he favors would be good in competition with the people who argue that the policy would be bad, like every other advocate must do.  The Catholic Church has millions of members in he United States, and many millions more throughout the world, yet all popes speak merely as human representatives of a human institution with no special insights or authorities.

Too often religious leaders are deferred to.  They are perceived by too many people as speaking with more authority and wisdom than others.  Taught from childhood that faith in the truth of religious doctrines is a highest virtue, some people are all too happy to follow too uncritically their holy guru wearing white robes.  Religious leaders too often self-claim to have sacred insights into the will of an alleged deity who is the ultimate supernatural authority for all of humanity.  Pope Francis, not withstanding his efforts to convey an image of humbleness, unavoidably carries some of this haughty attitude, inextricably weaved into his position as religious head of the Catholic Church, with him.

Policy advocates should keep this in mind when they opportunistically cite this pope as favoring a policy that they also favor.  True liberals, whether they are religious or not, are freethinkers.  Policy can be defined as good or bad only on the secular criteria of merit and therefore must be identified from thinking and deliberation that is anchored as much as possible in what the available empirical evidence says regarding what best promotes human welfare. There are no shortcuts, there is no perfection, there are often trade-offs.  All religions are fictions, all gods are imaginary.  Advocacy groups that enthusiastically single out and cite this pope, as if his judgements should be understood to carry more weight than everyone else's, are not serving the public interest.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Why Kim Davis will lose

There is a legal distinction between policy making duties and ministerial duties.  The latter applies to contexts where the act or function is prescribed and involves following instructions to try to achieve uniformity and consistency of outcome and minimize discretion.  The function of issuing marriage licenses is ministerial.  

A court clerk must verify that a couple applying for a marriage license meets the requisite legal qualifications.  If the legal qualifications to be married are met then the court clerk has no discretion to deny the marriage license.  Conversely, if the legal qualifications to be married are not met then the court clerk has no discretion to issue the marriage license.  Whether the government bureaucrat is an elected official or not makes no difference, a ministerial duty is not discretionary.  Under Kentucky law, it is a class A misdemeanor for a government employee to refuse to carry out their ministerial duty.

Kim Davis has three honorable choices, and they are all bad.  She can carry out her ministerial duty against her will, resign, or spend the remainder of her days as the elected court clerk on an extended leave from her job under court order (possibly confined to her residence or jail).  While she is absent from work, one of her deputies will issue the marriage licenses, possibly without the court clerk's signature. The county attorney, the governor, and the state attorney general have publicly asserted that the marriage licenses issued without her signature are valid.  Kim Davis is litigating on behalf of her claim that she has discretion to refuse to authorize the issuance of licenses to legally qualified couples and licenses issued without her authorization are invalid.  This is a sweeping claim with negative implications for the rule of law and thus will be difficult for judges to accept.

Her attempts to have the licenses declared invalid could result in a court decision requiring her signature to appear on the licenses.  Maybe that is her real goal because with her signature on the licenses she can then try to make a freedom of expression violation claim.  But a free expression claim would still be weak because her signature technically communicates only her judgement that the couple qualifies for the license under the law, it does not communicate that she personally endorses the marriages.  Her claim that by authorizing the licenses while serving as court clerk she would be personally condoning same gender marriage, regardless of whether her signature appears on the license, is a dubious claim.  Unfortunately, some legal precedents are excessively accommodating of such religious belief burden claims, thus encouraging them.  But there is no room for judges to agree with Kim Davis without contradicting the Supreme Court decision mandating same gender marriage, so even the bad precedents will not help her case.

In my opinion, it would be better for the SCOTUS to impose an enforcement delay when they file controversial decisions like this that extend civic equality to disliked minorities.  The length of the enforcement delay can be set to the length of time it typically takes an employed person to find alternative employment.  Most government employees tasked with implementing the revised law will comply immediately.  Those that refuse would have time to look for other employment before being confronted with the bad choices confronting Kim Davis.  Misguided bigots, such as Kim Davis, are often otherwise law abiding citizens who need employment to pay their expenses.  Without the bad influence of bad religions maybe there would be fewer such reprehensible bigots.  Government employees who continue to refuse to carry out their ministerial duties or resign after the enforcement delay expires would then find themselves coerced by the state into absenting themselves from their government employment.  This strikes a balance between the short term protection of a civil right to employment opportunity for those government employees tasked with implementing the revised law on the one hand and the need to promptly revise the law to extend civic equality to those who have been unjustly denied civic equality for far too long on the other hand.

Such an enforcement delay could have postponed the day of reckoning until after the next Kentucky legislature session resumed.  The Kentucky legislature could revise the law to allow a court clerk deputy to authorize licenses and place their own signature on the license.  Kim Davis has indicated that she would not stand in the way of granting licenses if they were authorized and signed by someone else.

People must be qualified for their employment, just like people must be qualified to obtain a marriage license.  Whenever someone's beliefs disqualifies them from their current employment they become responsible for finding alternative employment.  Freedom of expression and belief is not synonymous with freedom from being burdened by any negative consequences that result from following our beliefs.  Nevertheless, government arguably does have some responsibility to give government employees an opportunity to find alternative employment before forcing them out when they become disqualified from their current employment due to a conflict with their beliefs as a result of a change in the law that they are tasked with implementing.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Serious people should not cite David Barton

Bloomberg View published a new article by Noah Feldman, a professor of law at Harvard University, titled "What 'So Help Me God' Meant to George Washington", that tries to defend the claim that George Washington ended his initial presidential oath of office with the words "So help me God".  Mr. Feldman overlooks the fact that George Washington avoided using the word "God" in his speeches or in his public and private writing.  He also fails to notice that the oaths that frequently concluded with SHMG were usually administered as religious loyalty test oaths. The Constitution, with GW’s signature at the top, made a radical break from earlier American history by proscribing religious test oaths. An example of GW’s attitude against religious test oaths is his May 7, 1778 General Orders that left the trailing SHMG outside of the quotation marks so that the printed oath certificates did not include SHMG.

Mr. Feldman cites David Barton's argument that GW said SHMG.  Mr. Barton identifies various federal government authorities who asserted in the past that president George Washington appended "So help me God" to his first oath of office.  That is exactly the problem.  To make a positive factual historical claim requires supporting evidence.  David Barton conveniently ignores that the federal authorities he listed have withdrawn this illegitimate factual assertion after it was pointed out that there is no such evidence.  

The books that first claimed that the first president uttered that phrase, which were published over 60 years later, after the adult eyewitnesses were dead, fail to identify an eyewitness.  Although the author of one of those books, Washington Irving, attended the ceremony in 1789 as a six year old child, he did not claim that he heard those words himself and from where he was standing at the time he would have been too far away to reliably hear anything that was spoken on the balcony.  Instead, Mr. Irving copied into his book a not yet published eyewitness account of the oath ceremony written by someone else (Memoir of the life of Eliza S. M. Quincy, ed. E S Quincy, Boston [Printed by J. Wilson] 1861,) without acknowledging the original author.  He then added the SHMG to that original account.

A detailed first hand account of the first presidential oath ceremony from the French ambassador, who was on the balcony with GW, quotes the words of the oath as he heard it (written in French).  We also have a statement from Mr. Samuel Otis saying he lifted the bible towards the new president's head.  Mr. Otis presumably did that because he knew they were following NY state law and kissing the bible was part of the usual mode of administering an oath in NY at that time.  Appending the divine codicil was not part of the NY state oath procedure, unlike in NJ and several other states which, conversely, did not instruct the oath taker to kiss a bible.

There is no evidence for either a bible or a divine codicil during the second inauguration oath ceremony, which was the first presidential inauguration under federal law.  Furthermore, contemporaneous eyewitness accounts consistently support the conclusion that no president appended this divine codicil until, at the earliest, maybe Lincoln during his second inauguration, although the evidence for this is thin and contradicted.  It appears more likely that the first president to say SHMG was Chester Arthur in 1881, based on the newspaper reports.  However, Chester Arthur did not recite the oath, he merely replied affirmatively to the Chief Justice's questioning if he agreed to the oath as recited by the Chief Justice.  FDR was the first president that we know recited the oath with the divine codicil appended.  No Chief Justice misrepresented the presidential oath by prompting for SHMG until the 20th century.  Contrary to what Mr. Feldman claims, there is every reason to think that eyewitnesses who reported on the presence and use of a bible would have also reported on a divine codicil.  That placing a hand on a bible and kissing a bible was standard practice did not discourage eyewitnesses from noting its use.

Mr. Feldman cites Mr. Barton as providing a counterargument to Professor Henriques who argues that we should stop declaring GW appended SHMG.  Mr. Henriques is a professor emeritus of history with impeccable academic credentials and integrity (he wrote 'Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington').  Mr. Barton is a many times over discredited professional propagandist with a long and ignoble track record of consistently promoting a biased, distorted, and misleading historical revisionism for the obvious purpose of advancing the political agenda of the religious right.  A little common sense is all that is needed to recognize whose argument merits be taking seriously and whose argument merits a large dose of skepticism.  People like Mr. Feldman who fail to make this distinction are unworthy of being published in any newspaper or magazine that is worthy of being taken seriously.  And the counterarguments appearing in the book by Mr. Church, who was not a historian and was also cited by Mr. Feldman, are mistaken.  See

Mr. Feldman does not ask what should be an obvious question:  Why would Washington add a personal statement to the Constitutional oath written at the Convention that he presided over?  Congress had already decided to remove the SHMG phrase from the proposed executive and legislative branch oaths bill prior to the presidential oath ceremony.  That the Chief Justice of the U.S. now makes SHMG part of the presidential oath when administered is an unconstitutional act because it takes it beyond being a personal statement on the part of the person being sworn in and makes it seem like it's part of the oath, which it is not.

Theism turns itself into a dependency and there are theists who think that good and pragmatic people everywhere recognize that dependency as being positive and want to nurture it in everyone.  Noah Feldman appears to be arguing from that perspective.  This perspective too often becomes a justification for the exclusion of non-theists from positions of authority or responsibility.  Mr. Feldman argues that secular oaths were about accommodating Quakers.  We agree that such accommodation played a significant role. However, there is evidence that civic equality for deists and atheists was on some people's minds even in the late 18th century.  Thomas Jefferson said atheism harms no one and merited consideration.   

As we learn more about how the universe functions we have a concomitant responsibility to apply that knowledge wherever it is relevant.  Relying on history to justify freezing in place old prejudices built on old ignorance via the law is a misuse of history.  Unfortunately, for people who are themselves still trapped in a prejudiced perspective, this can be difficult to understand.  So we need to point this out.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Crediting liberal religion for their secularism

Many religious people evaluate public policy on the merits and reach the same public policy conclusions as non-religious people.  We non-religious folk are thankful that so many religious people have a secularist orientation.  We lobby together for our shared public policy goals.  So why would anyone publicly argue against religious belief?  Isn't religious belief the wrong target?

The ongoing Republican Party effort to defund Planned Parenthood illustrates why publicly arguing against religion is what we should be doing.  Almost 100% of the slander campaign against Planned Parenthood originates with religious institutions.  Some of the people who actively join this campaign against Planned Parenthood are not themselves religious.  These people are often career Republican party loyalists who probably could not care less if Planned Parenthood was funded or not and will advocate for whatever is popular among rank and file Republicans.  If we experience another government shutdown over defunding of Planned Parenthood, as Republicans are currently threatening, then everyone who voted for the majority Republican Congress will share responsibility for the negative consequences.

As for the religious institutions and believers who have a secularist outlook, they have a secularist outlook despite their religious belief, not because of it.  They may self-claim that their secularist outlook is rooted in their religious belief, but then they are mistaken.  If they abandoned their religious belief they would still have a secularist outlook.  To the extent abandoning religion has a political impact, the impact will be to move public opinion further towards secularism.

However, it is not any political calculus that justifies criticism of religious belief.  Religious belief and the campaign to defund Planned Parenthood both merit criticism because they are both built on false assertions and false premises.  To criticize religious belief only when it is anti-secularist is to politicize criticism of religious belief.  It is wrong to politicize everything this way.  There are such things as true and false, better and worse, good and bad.  Politics is important, but merit is even more important. After all, good politics is built on merit.